This article was first published at Getting Smart on Feb21, 2013

postpic4In my previous post, I wrote about the school experience I wish for my own children.  Today I am going to write about how as a family we have taken advantage of local and distant learning resources that allow us to treat education as a set of “platform services” that we can use to create a customized learning experience for each of our kids.


Annika is a 9-year-old Maker who also loves to dance.  Today, she is attending public school – our district’s primary schools still have the flexibility to “teach children, not subjects,” and offer lots of rich learning experiences from language to art to music to after-school Lego robotics.  Although the lock-step grade cohort learning of public school is necessarily time-consuming and inefficient, there is still time for her to spend many hours every week at a community dance studio and to spend hours and hours making everything from duct tape bouquets to clothing with lights controlled by microprocessors to 3D-printed accessories.  Sometimes she will get on Skype with an out-of-state friend who also loves duct tape and they then spend hours together working on their projects and sharing new on-line resources and communities for making.  Every other week she is joined in our basement by several local young makers to work together on projects and prepare for Maker Faire.


Erik is a 12-year-old mathematician who also loves gaming.  My quest for personalized learning resources began when he was in the second grade and it became clear he needed more than a public school could offer to maintain his interest in math, and my decision to take him out of the public school system came in the 6th grade when the love of math had been nearly driven out of him.  Erik takes advantage of an eclectic set of learning resources:

  • The Village Free School: VFS is a free and democratic school where students have a genuine decision-making role and where conflict resolution is a genuine priority – as evidenced by behaviors, not just ideals.  Students learn politics in the sense of finding ways to respectfully navigate diverse needs and wants and personalities within the context of making real decisions regarding school rules and operation.  VFS also, of course, provides a custodial role as well as a non-coercive learning space where the only requirements are to the individual and the community.  We are fortunate to live in a state (Oregon) where the policies support many different kinds of educational options and choices for families, making a school like VFS possible.
  • The Art of Problem Solving: This on-line community offers distance learning in math topics for students who are interested in competitive mathematics.  It is the core of Erik’s academic work – extremely challenging, based in deep understanding rather than rote learning, and highly engaging.  Erik is spending more time on math, working harder and enjoying it more than ever in his academic career – if we had found this five years ago, I believe our lives would have been very different.
  • Florida Virtual School: FLVS has a program that allows students all over the world to take advantage of their world-class distance learning courses.  Thanks to the policies in Florida that actively support students learning, Erik is able to take high school science courses from an outstanding teacher who is comfortable working with both younger and older students, with students who breeze through science and those who struggle, with students who are articulate and engaging and with those who are introverted and quiet.  The courses are self-paced, mastery-based, and include multiple ways for students to demonstrate mastery.
  • Personal Instruction: Erik meets weekly with a wonderful local language arts teacher where he gets one-on-one personalized assignments, discussions, and thoughtful, motivating experiences with literature and writing.  Any subject can become a dry, boring exercise in jumping through hoops, but add an engaged expert who loves the material and, instead, it truly comes to life.  Five hours a week in a classroom can’t begin to compare with these two hours of one-to-one instruction.
  • TED-Ed: Serendipity incarnate, the delightful short videos from TED-Ed provide food for thought on all kinds of topics it might never occur to us to explore otherwise.  It’s almost like an on-demand mini seminar series in our living room.
  • Studio Work: Erik has plenty of time every week to work on his programming.  Using the same tools and techniques as professional programmers, he recently coded up a website for his sister to share her love of Making with like-minded folks.
  • Service Learning: Erik volunteers for an organization in Portland called Free Geek which collects donated computers, disassembles them, and builds systems that are awarded to non-profits and to individuals in return for community service, believing that reuse is the highest and best form of recycling.
  • World of Warcraft: Our entire family plays WoW together and have since Annika was 5 and Erik was 8.  Aside from the benefits of any activity the whole family enjoys together, there are some particular educational side effects I’d like to highlight.  First, getting good at this game requires Internet research skills: search and keyword strategies, identifying reliable sources, applying and evaluating others’ strategies, poring through forum discussions to determine what is relevant, and so on.  The particular skills of using the Internet to learn in this way then show up in Erik’s academic learning.  Second, participating in guilds and raid groups is startlingly similar to navigating professional groups: there are countless lessons in collaboration, group goal setting, developing collective standards of quality, managing personalities, establishing a voice and reputation, managing expectations, making commitments, and accepting responsibility – these aren’t the “managed” interactions that you get in team situations where there are adults supervising children, but rather the authentic interactions of people of all ages working together as peers (because on the Internet, no one knows you are just 12.)

These are just some of the experiments we have found to be successful for us at this particular point in time.  In the spring, Erik and I plan to participate in a MOOC together from Keith Devlin on mathematical thinking.  We’ve bought Rosetta Stone software for Spanish, French and Mandarin but can’t quite decide whether the whole family wants to take the same language or if we all want to go our own way.  We haven’t even begun to explore opportunities for history, social science, or civics learning beyond the real-life lessons that come from the responsibilities created by membership in the Village Free School learning community.  Ideas on great resources are welcome!

Tomorrow, I will discuss what this prototyping effort has taught me about the requirements and design constraints on a national “education as a platform” that serves me and mine, but also how a useful platform will need to serve the educational goals of students, schools, communities, and families other than my own.