By Joseph McPhail
Yesterday I asked Sumay to take a look at a Gene editing company that looked like it might be a good investment. She said, "Sure Dad ... just as soon as I get done building the messaging protocol into the Makeshift Homeschool App". You see, Sumay is the first elementary school dropout to found and lead a tech startup.
This article is inspired by Sumay...but it's not really about her. It's about kids...and how we are squandering their potential by teaching them to ignore their passions. At our current rate of growth we will double in size every two weeks. Why? Because of a radical idea that my daughters had a year ago. This article is about that radical idea, and why we believe we are right.
Rethinking Childhood Education
The past year has been a transformative experience for our family. While the pandemic brought a lot of pain it also brought a lot of opportunity. For the first time my daughters were able to have more control over their learning experience...and what I saw forced me to rethink my views on childhood education.
In my May 2020 blog post on rethinking education I poured my heart out about my own experiences and tried to make sense of what was happening with my daughters. I went from failing kindergarten to winning an "Outstanding Alumni" award for a decade of career success and helping college students find their place in the world.
Teachers and doctors told me I had a learning disability...that I lacked the ability to pay attention...that I needed medication so I could sit still. Years later I look back on my career having managed teams of people for several of the most prestigious companies in the world and wonder how those entrusted to educate me got it so wrong.
The public education system failed me in many ways that I didn't realize until I went to college. For the first time had some choice and freedom to drive my own education. That should have helped me open my eyes to why many kids today hate school. But it took the pandemic for my eyes to fully open.
Schools haven't changed much in 130 years. Usually just one teacher lectures 25 kids that are all roughly the same age and ability. Teachers teach a set curriculum to their students based on standards set by the state and federal government. Students are tested to assess their comprehension of these lessons. Those who pass move to the next level.
Kids have almost no say in what they learn, and have little if any opportunity to teach even though teaching is by far the best way to learn and build confidence in young people. While schools have not changed just about everything a child could ever want to learn is available on the internet. Elon Musk was asked recently what his kids do at homeschool and he responded that "my kids were mostly educated by YouTube and Reddit".
That's not enough in my view. What kids really need is help connecting their unique strengths and passions with projects they can share. They need opportunities to learn to solve real problems, and create real value for other people. That's what successful leaders do...but for reasons no one has been able to explain to me...kids have to wait until they are in the 20s before they get that opportunity.
That is what we are doing at Makeshift Homeschool. We know it works because it started here first, and now its growing like wildfire.
After the pandemic hit we had a family meeting to discuss our predicament with our daughters, Sumay (age 10) and Aila (age 7). We explained that we had to work so they would need to come up with a creative solution to educating themselves. We had already introduced them to Khan Academy and Crash Course and Ted.. excellent resources that provide materials on just about every subject you can think of. That weekend they went through the available courses and came up with a list of what they wanted to learn about.
After three weeks they had published over 40 lessons on a wide range of topics like Genomics Sequencing, Economics, Statistics, and Positive Psychology. Some of their friends joined in as well. Sumay took an interest in learning more about education and so she started a podcast. What we learned about education was so moving to us that we, as a family, decided to dedicate nearly all of our free time toward building out a solution.
Unlike in school, Sumay and Aila had the choice to learn together. Sumay would often pause the videos and help Aila to understand new concepts and words, reinforcing her own understanding in the process. At one point I found them cuddled up together with their blankets and stuffed animals while a Crash Course video on Statistics played in the background...so I felt the need to introduce the concept of "Active Learning". After that, they started taking notes on a shared Google Doc that updates in real-time.
GoGuardian, an EdTech company, heard about Makeshift Homeschool back in July and interviewed Sumay and Aila about it. You can listen to them using the links below (1-4). They were not following a script and did not have too much time to prepare. They just shared their experiences and I could not be more proud.
(1) https://www.goguardian.com/blog/learning/makeshift-homeschool-episode-1/ (2) https://www.goguardian.com/blog/learning/makeshift-homeschool-episode-2/ (3) https://www.goguardian.com/blog/learning/makeshift-homeschool-episode-3/ (4) https://www.goguardian.com/blog/learning/makeshift-homeschool-episode-4/
GoGuardian interviewed me two years ago about education technology after finding my daughters blogs. Many parents are rightfully fearful of technology when it comes to kids. We are also fearful. Technology is like a gun. It's very dangerous...but if your growing up in the wild west you better know how to shoot one.
We taught our daughters that technology is dangerous...and then showed them how to use it. Today they are building apps, creating games, printing 3D objects, and writing about new technologies they are experimenting with. We write because it helps us think, share, and learn with other people. Sumay wrote a bunch of articles about genomics technology for school ... her school ... where kids learn about what they love.
Recently they started a playlist on the Makeshift Homeschool YouTube channel about 3D Printing. We bought our daughters a 3D printer because they said they wanted one. They put it together...and now we have two printers running 247. They design 3D objects using some software they discovered on the internet, and then "POOOF" it exists.
Our first joint family adventure into discovering new technologies was an obsession with Tesla back in 2019. This was before Tesla was "cool". Sentiment around this car company was terrible. Some analysts were predicting the price would go to zero as rumors spread that Tesla could be filing for bankruptcy. Elon Musk had a reputation for being kinda crazy, making wild claims about how the whole world was going to switch to electric vehicles, solar energy, and have autonomous cars driving around in a few years time.
So our family wrote a 33 page paper about why we were buying shares. We sent it in a mass email to all our friends and family on May 5th 2019. We bought Tesla at $200 ($40 post stock split) ... 5% of its current price. No one expected the 2000% rise that would begin to occur about a month after we sent this email. We certainly didn't.
Aila was my champion on Tesla. She came with me to the Tesla center several times. We asked them questions and tested the product. We shared our videos on Social media. This tweet of Aila testing out the trunk space went viral at over 1 Million impressions after Elon retweeted it. We bought more stock the next day.
While Tesla stock went on its euphoric rise up 2000% we just kept learning. Tesla launched a new solar panel solution called the "Solar Roof" that was interesting...so my daughters starting writing about solar energy. While learning about solar we discovered that silver is actually needed to make 95% of the world's solar panels because of its unique properties. They thought other people would find it interesting also so they made a video about it. That was a year ago...before solar stocks become the best performing ETF of 2020 and silver's price doubled.
Shortly after that we got into fake meat. Our daughters started writing again. We bought a bunch of plant based meat products and tried them out. They were pretty good...but we wanted more data. So we conducted a blind taste test around the neighborhood. Turns out that people tend to prefer plant based meat so long as it is cooked fresh. We discovered this after cutting the data a variety of ways to see how taste preferences changes based on things like age and time since preparation. Our interest in plant based meat didn't last long so we never bought into the way we did with Tesla...but the experience was incredible.
You can usually guess what we are into from following the blog on Makeshift Homeschool.
Friends ask me how we find the time...and the answer is simple.
While working with all these kids on Makeshift Homeschool we found a clear pattern. Once kids felt they were valued and listened to ... they started building confidence ... and once they had confidence ... they became really curious.
When kids become curious and have the tools to learn ... it's game over for parents. You never need to ask them to do homework or get on their case about being "productive".
Their desire to explore leads to something fascinating that I've been calling "Escape Velocity" ... It's hard to explain so I'll just let you see it for yourself. These are screenshots from our virtual school platform that I took after Cadence, one of our students, discovered that he really loved to write.
Cadence is on fire...and it didn't take much. All we did was help him cultivate his curiosity by connecting his natural strengths and interests to projects that adds value to other people. You do that enough with young people and something clicks...they become unstoppable.
Elementary school dropout
Sumay isn't really a "dropout" ... she just dropped in on a better way to learn.
She spends a lot of time building the app and helping kids on Makeshift Homeschool. She loves teaching and helping other young people learn to write and speak publically. She writes about a lot of things...sometimes she writes three articles a day. Her latest posts are about Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life.
When she wants to relax she reads books and makes "Serious" movies with her sister.
Sumay and Aila are learning life skills like cooking together.
They help each other learn to use new software and present their ideas to the world. Aila created this video on New Zealand that rivals in quality the best you can find on YouTube.
Some friends and family have been giving me a hard time about taking Sumay out of school. They worry that maybe her education isn't "well rounded" enough or that we need a "professional teacher".
Until now I've been sensitive to these concerns. Our goal is not to rustle feathers. But sometimes some rustling is needed to shake people from outdated beliefs.
All I can say is that for my daughters, Cadence, and other kids at Makeshift Homeschool...you don't need to worry about them. They are learning to cultivate their desire to learn, solve real problems, create things, and communicate their ideas to the world both in writing and in speech. They are already learning about the technologies that will dominate their future.
If you want to worry about someone ... worry about kids that are suffering like I did in the public education system. Kids that are told they need to sit down and do what they are told, and if they fail that they have a disability and need medication. Worry about them. Because they are the ones living in an education system that was built for the industrial revolution.
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