Our family has been doing a lot of reflecting since the fire ... and recently our reflections have been about rethinking childhood education. Anyone who has ever been confused by what WEquil School is and where it came from will probably want to read this...even if you do not homeschool. After a lot of reflecting we basically ended up back in the same place...our daughters have no interest in returning to public school.
Many parents agree that they want their kids to be confident, curious, collaborative, build solid communication skills, and become critical thinkers capable of solving novel problems.
Educators understand from experience that to achieve this they need to engage students in activities that excite them … are personalized to their strengths and interests, while also being constructive with real world applications.
Leading minds in education have long understood the power of public speaking, teaching, and doing real things like creating a product are very powerful learning strategies. Our family recently updated this list of strategies in our article "Principles of Learning" published on the WEquil.School blog. Sadly, these strategies are lacking in public schools. It is no one’s fault. This article is not about blame…it’s about facts.
The principles of learning require no leap faith. We cite leading minds and scientific research. Parents and teachers alike recognize that changes in technology and the modern economy should necessitate a change in how we educate children.
We know this as well from our personal experience...which we share below.
Your comments and criticisms are appreciated.
Everyone we knew started homeschooling out of necessity on March 1st (my birthday) of 2020 because all the schools shut down. We sat down as a family to talk about our options. Ultimately we settled on what we now call "Project Based Learning" although at the time we just called it learning.
Both our daughters had blogs before the pandemic. Mom and I gave them space on our family website WEquil.com. For example, Aila had just published "Adventures of Stuffy McLu" before the pandemic ... a list of stories about things she did with her favorite stuffed animal. Sumay wrote an article with me about "Lies we tell kids" which questions why parents tell kids to believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy (2). We also made documentaries about new technologies like Solar Energy and Plant Based Meat.
Note: We published these before the pandemic, but moved them around in 2020 so the publication dates are more recent.
Suffice to say that both my daughters had a lot of training in this approach to learning long before the pandemic even started. Another example is Sumay's "gift" for teaching. In reality I had been teaching her to program since she was six years old. She actually charged $10 an hour to teach a few friends as early as eight years old.
This is important for me to understand and explain to parents with interest in WEquil School because it helps to set the right expectations...something I often failed to do.
Ever since the pandemic I have described my daughters approach to homeschooling as "kid led" ... implying that parents and teachers could kick back and watch the magic happen...focusing mostly on positive encouragement and ensuring freedom to let their creative juices flow.
This was a dramatic over-simplification that I wish now to correct and explain more accurately.
Why? ... That is the key question.
Why are a small fraction of kids able to apply a self-directed approach to learning while the vast majority struggle and need a lot of support?
Previously I thought the answer was strategy.
I sincerely thought that if a parent anywhere watched our videos and followed our directions that their children would ...within a few weeks ... love learning and start using their time wisely.
That is a fantasy.
My daughters had a lot of things that most every child on the planet does not have.
1) Parents with graduate degrees and professional careers. 2) Supplemental experience like learning to program and write at a very young age. 3) Great teachers from a great public school before the pandemic.
Lihong and I both happened to win teaching awards the same year ... my senior year in college. Moreover, I was the first and only undergraduate at the time to be hired by the Economics department at Iowa State University. That happened before my sophomore year. By my senior year I was teaching graduate students how to teach undergraduate students economics as part of my job for the university. These experiences laid the ground work for me receiving a Young Alumni award in 2018.
All of these factors gave our daughters a leg up in life.
They were not simply born with these gifts, nor is it logical to assume that they could do what they do now without our very dedicated help early in their lives.
What is the point?
My point is that parenting and education takes a lot of work and some luck.
We think we have some valuable insights to share about how to help young people become confident, curious and apply themselves to create value for the world. That said, I think a lot of it comes down to spending a lot of quality time with children.
This TED talk was one of the inspirations for me writing this article. In it a five year old girl explains how her dad helped her develop.
Aila said this video reminded her of "Baby Bishop" ... a video mom took of her and me when Aila was maybe a year old.
Both exhibit the same basic strategy ... we both were giving long stretches of undivided attention to those babies.
That's pretty much the same thing we do now ... and increasingly Aila instead of Sumay and I because she loves entertaining young people while also helping them create! Here is a video of me talking to a young boy named Gavin during the pandemic. Yes, I had a giant afro at the time. No that is not the secret.
All I am really doing is spending time listening to Gavin tell me (and Sumay) about his interests. His interests are not all that different from other boys his age. He likes playing video games. He is also into Harry Potter.
At this point ... WEquil School has produced well over a thousand projects so we have lots of examples to share with parents. The easiest projects demonstrate what we call "Creative Intelligence" or the ability to turn learning into a process of creation. These projects can be about anything so long as they are novel and useful. Often times these projects are about games, books, movies, or a recent vacation...focusing on sharing something personal.
In Gavin's case ... I suggested that he write an article about why his favorite character was Snape, and share it with our school. He wrote a great article...because he felt listened to and was interested!
Over time we started to formalize our approach more and more, but the basic approach remains the same...we help kids turn learning into a process of creation. Here is another more recent example with a young man named Jonah who loves building forts. He turned it into a teaching opportunity, essentially creating a "How To" article which he presented to our school.
What remains fascinating to me is how project-based learning lends itself to kids making money ... because when kids are engaged in creating something novel and useful. Here is a business inspired by Aila's WEquil Wands called Cataplay. The entrepreneur's name is Cyrus...and he was eight when he put this together.
So what were the factors that helped make this happen?
First ... engaged parents.
I know these parents personally. They spend a lot of time with their kids. They do not stare at their cell phones when their kids talk to them. When their kids ask them questions they put down what they are doing and answer them sincerely.
And ... importantly ... they help them with their projects!
One of the most inspiring parents we have met since the pandemic is Candice Dugger. She an amazing parent and business women who helps children overcome bullying by becoming entrepreneurs.
She has been a big supporter of Sumay and now Aila ever since they met perhaps a year ago. Both my daughters joined Candice and her team of youth entrepreneurs just before the fire. Every parent there had a very similar approach with their kids...encouraging them to do real things to prepare for the real world.