The Measure of Success

As I proselytize the gospel of learner-centered education, I have come across the same concern over and over. I shouldn’t be too surprised, it would be a concern of mine, if I were still thinking from a traditional paradigm. The question is, “After democratic school (or unschooling), what do kids do? How many of them go to college? What kinds of jobs do they get?”  This isn’t necessarily the same concern as, “How would an unschooler get into college?” or “How would an unschooler be able to take college courses after never being in a classroom?” It’s a pure question of outcomes. What they are asking for is success rates.

There are a couple of problems with trying to answer this question. First, the numbers, as far as I can find, aren’t really out there. Yes, I have read some statistics here and there. For example, Daniel Greenberg of Sudbury Valley School, has said on more than one occasion that 100% of SVS students who want to go to college get in, and usually to their first choice. There was also an offhanded statement about the fact that 80% of SVS students do go to college. So, perhaps we can find spotty stats for individual schools.  Certainly, I can find nothing for unschoolers or free schoolers as a whole. (If you know about something like this, please share!)

The second problem is, to me, more important. Those of us in the unschooling/free schooling community do not see college attendance or career choice and subsequent salary as a measure of success. A.S. Neill was known to say, and I think I’ve quoted it here before, that he would rather Summerhill produce a happy street sweeper than a neurotic prime minister.  So, the measure of success, from my view would be how happy and fulfilled the graduate is in his or her life. As such, many free schools resist collating or providing statistics. They do not want to perpetuate the belief that college attendance is the be all and end all.

But there has to be a middle ground here. We need to be able to convince people of the efficacy of child-led learning, and many parents are concerned about college attendance. I wonder, and I’m just musing here, if there is a way to measure happiness. My husband, a dabbler in metrics, assures me that there is.  Yes, we could provide basic information on what students do after they graduate, but could we delve deeper? How about if we see how many life-learners become innovators in their field? And then compare that number to the general public? Wouldn’t that indicate that they are following their passions? Of course, we could always just interview as many as possible and ask them if they are interested in their work, but it would be hard to know who was giving us the answers we want.

There are also existing polls that measure anxiety or fulfillment. I would theorize that unschooling and free schooling grads would measure better on these types of polls than the rest of the country. But, at this point, we don’t know. To be honest, I want to do this work.  Having some hard and fast proof, there in black and white, could go a long way toward legitimizing this philosophy, and perhaps even creating stronger footholds in our culture and educational system.

What are your thoughts? Can you measure happiness? Would these types of statistics be helpful or harmful to the leaner-centered movement? Is anything like this out there already?

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Nesting Season

A couple of years ago, our family discovered  live feed of a nesting barn owl. The sitting, hatching and raising of the little owlets was followed closely by about 6000 viewers, among them our 14 month old son. This year, there are a lot of nesting cams to choose from. I love these cameras for many reasons:

  • We are watching animals in their natural habitats – no zoos (which make me feel uneasy) required
  • The cameras are completely non-intrusive  for the birds
  • My kids can see birds, eggs, nests, and hatchlings up close. And, they see the parent birds bring food, take turns nesting, and even leaving the eggs alone for hours. Questions always ensue.
So, if you’re interested in watching nesting cams in your house, here are the ones we’ve found so far:

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It’s all about Respect

Trying to distill unschooling or free schooling into one coherent thought can be challenging. We can go on and on about the benefits of child-led education – how it allows them to learn to learn, how children are natural learners and we just need to nurture that. We could talk about the huge problems with coercive education – the fact that it robs children of the joy of learning, that it creates anxiety and stress in a time of life that should be carefree.

But, deeper than the education part of unschooling, there is something more. This way of life, this philosophy about children, it’s all about respect. Even if it didn’t lead to a better education. Even if it didn’t create adults who follow their passions and embrace their individuality. A learner-centered philosophy is, at heart, a respectful philosophy. Children are people. They are worthy of respect. The fact that any adult thinks that they know what a child will need to learn for their life is ludicrous. And then, the fact that they force that child to learn it against their will is downright disrespectful.

When we respect our children as being whole people, capable of real opinions, emotions, desires and passions, we free them. They not only learn to value themselves, and therefore to become more confident, but they learn to value others. Many adults strive to teach kids to respect them by force.  You may be able to force a child to do what you want, but that doesn’t mean they respect you.  In fact, it usually leads to the opposite. And the child, while outwardly doing the thing you are making them do, is inwardly resentful and hateful toward you.

The only true way to teach respect, is to be respectful. You don’t have to be an unschooler to do this, but it’s hard to be an unschooler and not do it.

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School Informational Meeting

I’m holding the next school informational meeting on April 19th at 7pm at the El Toro Library. Go to the Events page to find out more.

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A New Venture

I am sorry that I have neglected this blog for so long. But, you should know that I have not neglected my passion for learner-centered education.

First, an update. My son is now almost three, and the prospect of him becoming “school age” is looming. I have been very vocal about my intention to homeschool/unschool him and have even converted a few of my friends into doing the same for their children. We live in an area where people are searching for an alternative to traditional schooling. Homeschooling seems to be much more acceptable and main streamed, and charter schools are catering to homeschoolers. It’s a hopeful direction.

I also now have a daughter. She was born last July and has been a complete delight. I love seeing the relationship between my children develop, even if it’s rocky at times.

As my son entered toddler-hood, and now is considered a “pre-schooler” (hmm, are unschooled children technically ever “pre-school” children), I had to take a hard look at my parenting decisions. My husband and I had decided against spanking, but then what? Much reading and searching led me to positive parenting, and I have been soaking up the information at This isn’t necessarily unschooling (though, it is related), but you should know my parenting approach as I start to write more on the blog, since I will likely talk about this.

But, the big news is this: I have decided to start a free school here in Orange County, California. I love unschooling, but I love free schooling even more.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, it’s essentially unschooling in community. The students are completely free to explore their own interests and passions, be bored, talk, play games, etcetera. The school is run democratically (these types of schools are often called “democratic schools”) via an all-school meeting. This is the forum for creating and changing rules, hiring (actually, it’s electing) staff, admitting and expelling students, discussing events, making financial decisions, and more.

I don’t have time or space to go into the school structure in detail, but if you want to know more you can go to my website at You can also learn a lot at Sudbury Valley School’s website ( This is the school that we will be based on.

If you’re interested in helping out or getting on the mailing list, email me at [email protected] and I will you add you to the list. And, if you know anyone in the Orange County area, please send this to them.  A new school is a huge undertaking and the more support, the faster and better it will be.

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The Myth of Forced Determination

One argument that comes up over and over in defense of institutionalized education is the belief that children need to learn to buckle down and complete a task, even if it’s onorous to them. It’s even something that my very unschooling-supportive husband still struggles with.  I’ve heard it from every one of my friends when I discuss my educational viewpoint. Many of us labor under the assumption that life is full of being forced to do things that you hate, and kids must go through this experience time and again in order to hammer that in. They call it “stick-to-itiveness” or “determination.”

Here’s the thing, though: in life outside of school, when you do something you dislike, you often see the REASON for it. Say, for example, that I hate camping.  My friends all decide to do a big camping trip and I know that if I don’t go, I’ll miss out on great bonding time. I may dislike the actual camping part, but I see the value in going. Or, to bring in a largely used example, say you had a job that you hated or that included tasks that you disliked. If you aren’t taught to struggle through the hard stuff by an institution such as school, how will you ever be able to do it in your job? Well, first, you’re being paid to do it. That’s a motivation. Second, to a certain degree, you chose to be in that job. And, third, in the situation where you generally like the job but dislike certain portions, you see the benefit of getting through the hard stuff in order to keep a job you generally enjoy, and to further your career.

This isn’t something that needs to be taught to you by giving you a difficult task that has no meaning to you. Forcing a math-lover to read and analyze Romeo and Juliet accomplishes nothing, save to make that person dislike Shakespeare.  They didn’t learn to stick it out and get something completed, even if they didn’t like it. Instead, they learned to game the system and do as little as possible to get the task over with.

Unschooled kids complete tasks that they find difficult all the time. But, they do them because they see the reason for it and have a larger goal. They might want to create their own video game, so they go through the laborious process of learning a programing language. They may want to write a novel, so they spend hours and hours at the computer. They may want to win a Lego competition, so they learn about geometry and physics. If forced to do any of these tasks out of context, they would find them pointless and frustrating. But, because they have set their own goals and have the freedom to pursue their own interests, they amaze us with their stick-to-itivenss and determination.

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This morning I heard a story about the Iraqi orchestra. Off-handedly, the reporter mentioned a 13-year old boy (Llewellyn Kingman Sanchez Werner) who has been invited to play piano with the orchestra. The boy, as they say, is a prodigy. The news story wasn’t about Werner, so there wasn’t much information on him, but I turned to my husband and said, “What if his parents said, ‘No, you can’t play piano all day – you have to go to school?'” Wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Wouldn’t we all agree that he is wasting his talent?  We don’t question for a minute when a “prodigy” is pulled out of school to travel the world performing.  In fact, we’d probably be upset if that child wasn’t given those opportunities.

But, here’s the thing: every child is amazing at something. Okay, maybe we can’t place every child on the prodigy pedestal because that’s really reserved for kids who are better at something than most adults will ever be. But, isn’t it possible that we are hindering every child in his pursuit of his gift by forcing him to go to school? We are trying to make all of our kids mediocre in everything, instead of excellent in one thing.  We are doing the same to them as we would be doing to Werner by forbidding him the ability to play the piano so that he could focus on American Literature or Physics. It’s ludicrous.

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Happy Memorial Day – Muppets Style

Have a great Memorial Day weekend, everyone!


(RSS Readers, you may need to click “View article” to see the 2 min embedded video.)

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Mindful Parenting

If you’re a reader of this blog, and you’re a parent, it’s highly likely that you don’t need to read this post.  But, humor me. Just in case you need reminding.

As parents, our job is more than to make sure that our babies turn into adults. It’s more than making it through the day, the week, or the year. Let this short post be a reminder to you to question yourself. Don’t just do things because that’s the way you’ve always done them. Don’t make parenting decisions based solely on the way you were parented or on what society expects of you. 

We should be asking ourselves on a daily basis WHY we do things. Why is it a rule that your child can’t touch certain things? Are these arbitrary things? Why do you discipline him or her in a particular way? Is it working? Is there a better option? Why do you watch more television than your child is allowed? Is that modeling good behavior?  Why do you get frustrated that your child is questioning you? Is it because you don’t have a real reason for what you’re doing in the first place?

It’s easy to get into a rote routine, and at times it is necessary. But, don’t stay there long. For your sake and your child’s sake, question yourself.  Make sure you have actual, legitimate reasons for your actions, reactions, habits, discipline, and rules (or principles).  And make sure your child knows those reasons.

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Calvin and Hobbes

calvin school


I like to think that Bill Watterson is an unschooler at heart.

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