What I Learned from Two Years of Home-Schooling

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I’ll probably tell people that the best two days of my life were the day I started homeschooling and the day I stopped homeschooling. Not because I didn’t enjoy the experience. It was just really really hard, and in different ways than I would have thought.

My reasons for homeschooling were many. First of all, my son seemed to be slipping. He had started out in grade school as a really great student, asked into the ALPs program in both Reading and Math. ALPs stands for Accelerated Learning Program, and only a handful of students are invited into it. By 5th grade, his first year of Middle School, he was called a “straight A student,” but by 6th grade, he was called a “solid B student.” I was getting concerned. He seemed to be getting worse each year.

His 6th grade teacher and he did not click. She was very outgoing who prized group work and collaboration. My son is an introvert who prefers to work alone. When I told her this, she said, “Well, that’s how I run my classroom.” He was beginning to hate school. Furthermore, his math scores, while still high, were being pulled down by his poor classroom behavior. She said he would not be admitted into the accelerated math class.

A final reason for homeschooling was that my husband got a job working at night and I was beginning to feel like a single mom. I was in charge of homework, after school activities, as well as the normal cooking, cleaning, dishes and laundry. There was also the fact that my mother, who was now 80, was not seeing my kids very often. They were getting older and not needing the baby sitting like when they were younger. I thought she could be involved with the homeschooling, as she was a retired teacher. The adolescent years were going by fast.

Serendipity also played a part. A number of families in my church were home schooling, and they were going through this new program called “Heritage Learning.” The students would go to school on Mondays, with regular classes and teachers, and then have their remaining work for the week posted on a site. I wouldn’t have to choose the curriculum, give tests, or manage any other school tasks. It seemed perfect. I signed on, and decided to home school for 7th and possibly 8th grade. I was working out of my home as a writer, so I had the freedom to set my schedule. I could also get both my husband and mother involved.

I can still remember the first day of homeschooling. While the other public school students, including my 10-year-old daughter, lugged their backpacks into school, we had the whole day ahead of us. An adventure in learning and enrichment awaited us. Since his homeschooling program wasn’t going to start for another week, we decided to peruse the library, and look at all the books we would be reading. Next, we went home and played board games. That was probably the most exciting day of playing Stratego that I can remember. What a day!

So, then the year went on, and it was very much a discovery year. We managed to begin working by around 10 or 10:30 am., but usually only for 1 hour. And my role as teacher got larger and larger. I began to read material to him, that way I knew he was really comprehending it. Then I helped by reiterating important points, and then by helping him answer the questions from the reading. I chucked up this hand-holding to the fact that he was only 12 and had pretty poor study skills. Math tuned out to be a disaster, as it is not my strong area. I tried to teach it as best as I could, but I did a poor job. I also tried to get my husband to help, but he was tired from working full-time, and my mother was no help in math as she had been an English teacher. He did OK for awhile, but then the Math got really hard, so we made very slow progress.

But on the flip side, I really enjoyed learning from his other classes, especially History. The classic learning method that Heritage follows emphasizes memorization, which I think, is a skill that is solely lacking in today’s progressive learning environment. He was given a stack of 150 “flash cards”, each containing a major event in history, from antiquity all the way through the 20th century. We read through and memorized 7 cards a week. The titles were even put to a song, “the Time-Line song”, available on YouTube for easier memorization. This was probably my favorite area of study at Heritage.

I was working as a technical writer, part-time, at night, and I was starting to get really tired. It was like two jobs, homeschooling by day and writing at night. The hardest part was the disorganization. I had to tell him to do everything from sharpening his pencils, to retrieving his assignments from his folder. He wouldn’t do anything on his own without my assistance. Once again, I attributed it to poor study skills. But, by the end of year one, I was still pretty motivated. He seemed to really enjoy Heritage, and I didn’t want to send him back to the same middle school. It would be better to start fresh at high school. So we did another year.

But things got harder for me. The work load increased. He took Humanities that focused on the middle ages. A very interesting time, but the reading was “old English” style”, and there was a lot of it. At the end of every week, there was a large writing assignment. Writing is my forte, but doing this every week on top of my other writing work was getting pretty hard. I also asked a friend of his to tutor him in Math. The friend had been a member of a chess club my son had attended, and who was now ,a student at Montana State University. They worked over Skype. The problem was that it was a lot more fun to play video games than to do math, and I had to get on his case constantly to get the work done.

Now that we are at nearing the end of the 2nd school year, I can begin to assess whether we accomplished our goals by homeschooling, and I’d say the results have been mostly mixed. On the positive side, the Heritage program was great, and he truly loved it. We learned so much about history and literature, myself included. Small class sizes and excellent teachers made my son say that he truly loved school. He made some great friends, and said there was absolutely no bullying of any kind, which he felt he was already starting to experience a little in the 6th grade in public school.

But, on the negative side, he’s still not a great student like he was in grade school. He rarely reads, except to listen to an occasional audio tape. While he had once been a great math student, he is now most definitely average, and will be placed at the average math class for his grade in high school. Time spent with my husband and mother also gets a mixed grade. He’s gotten a paper route with my husband and they do that twice a week. I’m happy that they’re spending time together, but it’s not really academic. He’s also spending more time with my mother, but not by doing work. He and I go down to her house once or twice a week to do school work, but he refuses to do school work with anyone but me.

So I’m altogether positive about the experience, but I’m looking forward to the last day of the year. I will be able to let out a sigh of relief. Luckily, my daughter is a great student, and has no interest in home schooling. If you are considering homeschooling, I would say this: It can be a good experience but consider it carefully. If you believe your child is not thriving, then you may want to do it. But remember it is hard work, and a lot of responsibility. Pick a good program, like Heritage, and good luck!

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life,

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What Educational App should you use?

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A couple of years ago, I attended an International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference. Being the largest organization in Educational Tech, the conference was massive. The exposition hall alone contained 540 vendor booths — I counted them, from their listings in the program guide.

I wondered how anyone could make sense of it all. With so many choices in educational and learning apps, where does one even begin to select what would be the most appropriate for them. I’m referring to both teachers who would like to use these apps in their classrooms, and to individuals who would like to learn new skills or brush up on old ones. While many of these booths represented the “hardware” side of Ed Tech, i.e. Chrome Carts, Whiteboards, etc., there were still many software options from which to choose, and each professing to greatly improve the achievement of all.

So, is there any real way to pinpoint which learning app can be the most appropriate to meet a specific learning need? This question stayed with me. Recently, I’ve revisited this question, and I’ve decided to categorize these apps, trying to find a clear way for anyone to determine the best app for them.

Based on some general principles that I’ve developed personally, I’ve decided to arrange the apps into three categories based on how the brain processes information. The first category I call “knowledge building”. These are mostly whole courses that can stand on their own.  They provide all the elements of instruction including content delivery, practice, and assessment. There is no teacher required, and these courses can fill a need for providing learning when it isn’t available otherwise. They can work for both advanced learners who would like to proceed beyond what is available at their location, to remedial learners who need a little more time and instruction beyond what they are currently receiving. Since these apps stand alone, learners can pick and choose as needed.

A second category I call “skill-building”. These are apps that can not stand alone. They are supplementary and can be used by educators or anyone who just wants to provide additional practice of skills to reinforce what has been learned elsewhere. Hopefully, these apps would prove a more enjoyable experience than the typical worksheet or questions to answer in a book, and they can truly reinforce and cement learning on a variety of topics.

A final category, I’ve referred to as “affective and motivational”. These apps are only loosely related to any traditional academic content. They are strictly used to provide interest or depth to a subject area, and they can be very helpful for increasing interest and motivation in learning. They may include videos of world events/problems, or games which put people into actual scenarios. People love these kinds of apps and using more of them could make learning much more enjoyable to all.

The goal would be for all three categories to used within learning organizations or by people wanting to “learn throughout their lives”, because they all fulfill different needs and purposes. There are ways to make sense of all the educational apps out there. They just need to be arranged in a way where each person can determine what is most appropriate for their unique needs for learning. When I am finished categorizing the apps, I’m going to list them on my website.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life.

 

 

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Group Learning or One-on-One?

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Are you one of those people who loves to attend class? Do you really like the give & take of classroom discussion, while loathing the process of learning independently such as through a one-on-one tutorial? Or, perhaps it’s the other way around. You love learning independently on your own, and could take-it-or-leave-it when it comes to learning within a classroom setting?

But probably for most of us, we are in the middle. We like both approaches, and would love opportunities to learn both independently, and within a group setting, as we continue to learn throughout our lives. Luckily, there are guidelines as to which form of learning is best depending on the type of outcome desired.

This kind of learning dichotomy is often referred to as structured vs. non-structured learning. For subjects that you are not at all familiar with or when the context is brand new, learning occurs best in a structured environment – e.g. one-on-one tutoring, either by human or by electronic means. In this way you are guided, hands held, throughout the learning. There is ‘scaffolding’ which means that you are given a clear path through the learning. If you need extra help, the scaffolding directs you to the additional instruction or provides hint/tips as to the correct outcome. Both human tutors and electronic tutoring programs perform this kind of guided scaffolding, and it is the reason why tutoring works well in subjects such as Math and English/writing, where there is much new academic learning that can be independent of what we already know.

But when you are highly knowledgeable in a subject area, it is unstructured learning that can actually lead to the highest outcomes. You can work in a group or on a project that requires some ‘filling-in-of-the-gaps’ through your extensive background knowledge. And this is why team activities can be so productive for higher achieving students and for professionals in the workplace. A structured hand-holding tutorial process is often considered ‘boring’ for people with this level of background knowledge. They want to be challenged.

So you need to decide what instructional method is best. Are you learning something very new, such as a new computer software program? Then it may be best to complete a step-by-step tutorial. You can easily do this on-line and receive a certification/badge for the learning. But if you are advancing your knowledge in a subject area that is very familiar to your, then an unstructured learning environment would be better, such as taking an on-line course that requires a lot of project or group work. In this way, you can ‘scaffold’ the learning process itself by filling-in the missing information when it is needed. You might even come up with something that is totally new and innovative.

It doesn’t have to be a question of either-or. We can partake in a variety learning activities and continue to learn throughout our lives. You just have to take the lead to find out what the best learning method is out there to achieve your goals.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Are you smarter than a computer?

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It’s a phrase that’s on everyone’s mind. If computers can do everything that people do, how will anyone make a living in the future? Unfortunately, computers and robots can do an awful lot. When solving complex equations, for example, a computer will beat any human brain hands down. Even chess playing, which seems like the ultimate task in higher human thinking, has the computer beating even the best human chess player. It was former world chess champion Garry Kasparov who, in 1997, took on Deep Blue in a match that was called “the brain’s last stand”. Kasparov was beaten by the computer. The best Jeopardy player was also recently beaten by Watson, an expert system. Watson has now gone on to do additional roles in society requiring massive factual knowledge, such as in the medical field.

When it comes to straight-out cognitive tasks, the computer may have the edge. Computers have fast processing speed and expansive memory. But all is not lost, the human brain has additional ways to think that a computer does not. There are three memory types in the brain, and pure cognitive thinking is only one of them. The two other memory types (Episodic and Procedural), were inherited from animals and millions of year’s of evolution.

Our episodic memories for experience allow us to adapt based on intuition and pattern recognition. Our memories for experience can warn us if a berry on a bush is poisonous just because it looks similar to one we have previously experienced. It is a survival benefit that a computer cannot do. If a computer is presented with a task that is ill-defined, it will crash or go into a “continuous loop”.

Our other “procedural memory” lets us memorize skills and build on those skills. This is another area where computers are unsuccessful. And even animals have this ability, which makes their intellect much higher than the best computer. A dog that losses a leg to an injury, can soon learn to hobble around on three legs instead of four. A robotic dog that loses a leg would not be able to function. It would stop working altogether.

To stay ahead of computers, therefore, one has to use “all of their mind.” If you possess a certain degree of knowledge and you use that same knowledge over and over again, you will probably eventually be surpassed by a computer. However, if you constantly study your environment, learn how to adapt and change, and especially always learn new skills, you will probably be able to stay ahead. You need to use your memories of experience and skill-development to find how you can be most productive and “ahead of the curve.” Self-directed learning through life will be your way to stay ahead. Don’t let computers be smarter than you. Use your whole brain and fight back.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life

 

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Different Ways to Learn

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Today, we have an educational process stuck in the 20th century. You go to high school for 4 years and then you go to college for 4 years – if you want to get a good job that is. But maybe you only go to college for 2 years; then you will probably stay in a “blue collar” field with no means to advance.

After you graduate you’re done, supposedly prepared for a life-time of work, assuming that you even know what you want to do with the rest of your life. This one-size-fits all approach to education has to change. There needs to be a variety of ways to advance in your career throughout your life.

We go to school in the early years to learn basic skills, like reading, writing and arithmetic. Think back to your early school days. What do you remember? It’s probably endless worksheets, problems on the board, or in books to solve. But that was OK. We did what the teacher asked. We wanted their approval and we knew that they knew what’s best.

But sometime later things begin to change. Starting in high school (in my experience), I began to think about my own learning. I realized pretty early that I hated math but I loved reading and writing. I devoured fiction books and got straight As, in all of my English classes. But in math and science classes I didn’t do so well. I began to wonder why I have to take all these courses that I don’t like, and wasn’t good at. It would have been nice to explore a little more my interest and talent in writing, rather than just attending the standard English classes that the school offered.

So that is where I ended up, a mediocre student with some high grades and some low grades, but luckily good enough to get into college. Once there, I didn’t know at all what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know what I could do with that skill. I didn’t want to be the typical English major who would become a starving artist, trying to get a book published, and I wasn’t yet interested in writing non-fiction that a Journalism degree would entail. I majored in Psychology with a minor in English, and went out in the world with few ideas.

I thought that I might get a job writing curriculum; that would combine my psychology degree (with its study of learning), together with my love of writing. Unfortunately, I found that curriculum writing jobs were only given to certified teachers, and I didn’t have a teaching certificate. But that’s when I learned about technical writing, where I could use my psychology background and my love of writing. But I couldn’t just go into that field. I had to take a number of contract positions so I could gain experience — experience that I couldn’t get from school.

Today with college costs so high, we can’t afford to stumble around until we find out what we want to do. Everyone needs to advance through college in 4 years or less. They need to have a good idea of what they want to do and have the skills to do it. My solution is this. In high school, students need to begin to take control of their own learning. They need to find a direction for themselves. The stakes are high and a lifetime of debt awaits everyone who makes the wrong decision.

End formal high school studies after Sophomore year. Everyone should take a test of basic skills, like what’s on the GED test. If they have low proficiency in one or more areas, they should take remedial coursework while they are still in high school, where they don’t have to pay for it. This is unlike the situation now, where most college students have to take remedial coursework that they pay for, before they can even take the courses in their major.

Next, give students learning choices to explore. Let them take on-line courses in a variety of subjects. Let them do apprenticeships or internships in career areas where they might have interest. Let them do independent projects or group projects in subject areas that interest them, and let them take community college courses so they can get a foot-in-the-door to higher education. If students fail or lose interest in one of those endeavors, no harm has been done.

Next, make two-year degrees from community colleges more transferable to 4 year degrees. It shouldn’t matter that you received a 2-year degree in auto mechanics but then decide you want to become an Engineer. If you have the skills and desire, you should be able to advance however you want. You should be able to take other courses than “Gen Ed” in community college and have them be transferrable. In fact, more people should start out with two year degrees and then transfer them to 4 year degrees. It is less costly and you can get more practical skills in the process.

In the 21st century, more education is required to have a successful career. Jobs are more fluid and are constantly changing. Education needs to change with it.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life.

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What about lowering the costs?

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There are many prescriptions for improving higher education, but the one that is least mentioned is lowering the cost. When costs are lowered, more people can attend. Nobody mentions lowering costs because they believe it is impossible to do so without also lowering the quality. But, we know that technology has lowered the costs in most every other sector of our economy, and in many cases, improved the quality.

The simplest solution for bringing the costs of higher education down is to provide 2 free years of community college for all. A student could choose to receive a free 2-year Associates Degree or transfer 2 years of coursework to a 4-year university. Some states are already providing free community college, including Tennessee. However, unfortunately, many people still believe that community college coursework is less desirable than coursework at a 4-year university. I believe this does not need to be the case.

Community Colleges could be brought up to par with 4-year universities with the use of technology. Already, courses from some of the best Ivy League schools like Harvard, MIT and Stanford are available on-line. If a group of students viewed the on-line lectures together in a community college setting, and were overseen by facilitator, their education would be just as good as a 4-year university, and at a much lower cost.

The drop-out rate for on-line courses is high, and taking these courses requires good study skills and self-directed hard work. But, these are precisely the qualities that most students who want to attend a 4-year university possess. Thus the risk for dropping out is much lower.  Higher-achieving students could receive a great education at a much lower cost through their local community colleges — at least for the first 2 years.

Even traditional vocational courses that community colleges provide could be beefed up by introducing real-world technology skills. These technology skills can be surprisingly complex and are in great demand by employers. By getting local businesses involved, students can learn complex technologies at their local community colleges, and in association with apprenticeships can get a foot-in-the-door to high-paying jobs.

A large problem for all students is their lack of real-world experience. It would be beneficial if all students could obtain real-world technology skills while they are still in college. Community colleges can provide those skills.  Even when students transfer their first two-years of coursework to a 4-year university, they will have obtained some good technology skills. No need for these students to take unpaid internships after graduation to obtain real-world skills. I believe by providing free community college and by using technology, we can bring down the costs of higher education while also increasing the quality.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life.

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What’s it mean to be a team player?

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Do we learn better in a group or alone? Do we make better decisions as a group or individually? How important is it really to be a team player? It seems to be mostly assumed that we work and learn better in groups. People often think fondly of team sports or other group activities in childhood and adolescence, but did anyone ever consider the kid who was picked last for a sports team? What did that kid get out of team sports? Probably nothing.

Most of us can say the same. We’ve had great team experiences and we’re had poor ones. I believe the emphasis on team and group work has been greatly overrated. We can work together as a team as long as we have something individually to provide. Get a group of people with limited background knowledge together to solve a problem and it’s usually the loud mouth that wins.

The biggest reason for the effectiveness of teams in learning and performance, is actually, the power of autonomy. Having personal autonomy in what we do and how we learn is the most powerfully motivating force we know. Does anyone like to be micromanaged in their work? They most definitely don’t. Everyone wants to have personal control over what they contribute in their work and lives.

In this regard, teamwork is really about contributing what you know best. The best teams in business consist of a group of people from different functional areas, with each one contributing what they know best. A problem is best solved when a group of people can contribute something to which he/she is an expert on. It provides the best motivation and engagement for success.

In regards to learning, it is a similar fact. Students can work together in groups but only if they have the skills, background, and interest to contribute individually to the group work. Otherwise you have the same problem where the loud month wins, but it is that one or two students with the best background and drive complete most of the work. The others become the required but not valued participants.

That’s why learning in groups must be carefully designed, and it works best with older and more skilled people. Groups can also be self-selected. When you consider how people become teammates when playing games on the Internet, they are self-selected based on a similar interest and skill level with the game. For all the talk of great teamwork at powerhouse companies like Google and Facebook, these employees are highly skilled and were selectively hired based on what they can contribute to the organization. They were not put in teams randomly.

I would like to see more self-selection of group work within learning. With a smorgasbord of on-line courses available, many could be made available in colleges and even high schools. Students could sign up for the courses based purely on interest and ability. They could do group project work together, and be highly motivated in the process. A facilitator would be all that is required to keep them on track. Students could also self-select to work on projects in the school or community if a variety of them were made available. It could be a great way to harness the power of groups, much like how star athletes perform greatly when playing on a sports team together.

Chris Bernat is the author of Individualized Learning with Technology – Meeting the Needs of High School Students – a book about how learning can be individualized for older students, starting in high school and continuing throughout life.

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