The Humble List

Having argued that testing and grading actually hinders learning, I’d like to offer one alternative. How do we know our children are learning if we don’t test them? How do we motivate them to learn more without grades? How do we get out of the education-as-a-checklist rut, and start learning as if we were feasting?

Tracking and measuring our children’s education, like education in general, should be simple, fulfilling, and increase learning. It should not be complicated and stressful, motivated by fear and anxiety.

The student should be in charge, or involved as much as possible, of tracking her own progress.

Behold the humble list.

I almost feel silly saying this. It’s so simple and unexciting. And yet most people cannot wrap their minds around the fact that simple is usually more efficient and effective than complicated. You’re suggesting I make a list??? Seems too simple and too obvious to be effective. We continue to believe that higher quality must be more difficult to understand and implement. It must necessitate more busyness, more rigor, more stress, or technology to handle it for us. And so we contrive complicated curriculums and methods that drain all our energy and consume all our time, tricking ourselves into believing that we must be getting better results.

We use spreadsheets to track the books each child has read. Spreadsheets make it easy to add columns and rows, and sort your list by various parameters (alphabetical, chronological, subject etc.)

This is a 7-week, 56 book, excerpt of Jane’s booklist. To date she has read (or been read) over 2,000 books since age 5. Click on the image to view it full size:

FINAL books read age 11

A simple “X” in a column would suffice, but as you can see, we like to add more information where applicable.

We are feasting.

I started this list in a word processing program when my oldest daughter was 5. When she was 9 we switched to using spreadsheets (a separate one for each year), and she took over managing her own lists.

You could keep a list of anything, of course–places you’ve visited and experiences you’ve had–field trips, plays, art exhibits, museums, mentorships, etc.

Lists work magic in three ways:

1. Awareness. You will realize how much, how varied, and how in depth your children/students are learning, especially as you watch the list grow over years of tracking. Real books tend to be much more interdisciplinary–and interesting–than textbooks and instruction, so learning is more efficient and memorable. Over the years, your children will develop such a broad knowledge base, deep in many areas, that it will come close to rendering the curriculum obsolete.

2. Powerful Motivator. The list itself, without any outside incentives for number of books read, etc, acts as a powerful motivator to add more items to the list. And when there is no outside incentive for reaching a certain number, the list maker is very particular about which items are *worthy* of the list. I will never forget what Jane said around the time she took over managing her list at age 9. She looked at all the books she had read, or we had read together, since she was 5 years old. Her eyes grew wide.

“I can’t believe I’ve read that many books,” she marveled. She thought a moment. “I want to read 300 books in one year, by my tenth birthday,” she said very seriously and resolutely.

“Baby books” certainly didn’t count.

She achieved her goal of 300 books before her tenth birthday, so she set, and achieved, another goal to read 50 more.

The next year she made a sub-goal of reading a certain number of classics and Newbery Award winners/honors.

3. Remember. Jane often looks back at books she’s read so far this year, or read in years past. It is exciting to see how much she’s learned and accomplished, and the results of her dedication and persistence. It reminds her of the stories she loves and what she’s learned. It is a keepsake she can print and put in a memory book.

Some day she will be reading to her own children. I imagine she’ll pull out that list and memories of being read to by her own mother will come flooding back to her.

She’ll pull one of those books off the shelf.

“This is the tale of a rabbit named Peter,” she’ll say, with her daughter on her lap. New memories of reading with her own children will begin forming.

And she’ll see the story with new eyes.




Recognizing Real Learning Opportunities

Many people push their kids to do their homework, but rob their children of the most profound real-life learning opportunities.

Today we bought a bike for my 8-year-old daughter off of Craigslist. When we arrived to give it a test ride, the mom told us all about the bike and chit-chatted with us while her 12-year-old daughter (whose old bike it was) stood by scowling. The one thing she said while we were there was “No! Kick it the other way!” rudely when her mom was trying to get the kickstand up.

Elsie and I decided it was a great bike for her, and made the transaction with her mom, who promptly handed the money over to her daughter.

“It was a birthday gift to her 2 years ago, so I told her she gets the money if she sells it.”

But she didn’t sell it. Her mom did.

And by doing so, she robbed her daughter of the chance to develop a real life skill that will benefit her more than memorizing all the capitals of the U.S. states–how to list something on Craigslist, post pictures, decide what features and wording will be most attractive to potential buyers, dealing with emails and phone calls, answering people’s questions, how to talk to people/potential customers, and probably most important–

initiative and the fulfillment and confidence that comes from goal setting, work, and stepping outside of your comfort zone. And young people are capable of it. Let them they make mistakes–it will expedite the learning process. Check out this young girl’s business. She deals with the customers, takes her own pictures and watermarks them, and creates her own desserts, prices, menu, and postings, with a little guidance from her parents if she doesn’t know how to do something:

8 and 4-year old Mow Lawn Together

real responsibility + trust = happy, empowered children

And I love how they work together, as a team, because neither of them can do it alone. 🙂

The most profound learning experiences happen outside a classroom.

Responsibility and Trust in Education

IQ Doubles Tim Ferriss
Tim Ferriss is a very successful entrepreneur who was talking about how to treat employees, but this is a fundamental principle of human nature and the basis of a great education. When we entrust our children with responsibility for their education, motivation and learning increases and relationships are strengthened.

They become passionate seekers of knowledge and purpose, instead of passive receptacles of information who ask, “Will this be on the test?”

I’m Giving You a “D” in Parenting

I was wondering what it might feel like to be observed, tested, graded, micromanaged, rewarded and/or punished for our learning and behavior as adults, the same way our children are. And would I be more successful if I were? This is what I envisioned:

Hello, [your name here]! How are you today?! My name is Mrs. Selden and I have a Bachelor of Science degree in Adult Life Skills. As part of a new government program to help adults be more successful in life, I have been assigned to teach and guide you through adulthood—free of charge!

I’ll be following you throughout your day and watching how you perform your chores (and make sure you do them!), raise your children, interact with your spouse, perform your job, and spend your money. I will grade you based on national standards and give you assignments that will help you improve in these areas. I also like to go the extra mile and give you specific written feedback regarding your strengths and weaknesses. Feel free to ask me any questions about it.


I was so proud of you today at work! Your professionalism and ability to connect with people is truly outstanding. I do need to deduct a few points for your tardiness this morning (2 whole minutes!), so I’m giving you a final score of 95 out of 100 for “Career” today—an A! But don’t get complacent–there’s always room for improvement.

I’m going to sign you up for Arabic class. Arabic is the new valuable language to have, and it’s a good tool to have in your tool belt. Even if you don’t ever use it, it looks good on a resume and exercises those brain muscles! Trust me on this one. 😉 I expect to see you in class the first day of the next term and remember that your test scores will be on your permanent record for future jobs or promotions.

Lifelong Learning

Speaking of exercising your brain muscles—I didn’t see you read a single page of a book today. 20 points deducted from “Lifelong Learning.” Your assignment for next week is to read 10 pages a day from any book. Would you at least give Fifty Shades a try? I’ll give you a certificate for free pizza if you do—anything to get you reading!


But…I really can’t leave without talking to you about your parenting. What were you thinking when you yelled at your daughter like that? Never let your daughter suck you into her vortex of adolescent emotion! Not only do I have no choice but to give you a “D” in “Parenting” for that little song and dance, but I’m giving you a time-out to think about what you did and dissuade you from losing control again. If that doesn’t work, I have some medication to help you stay calm. You can do better than that!

And just a heads up—there will be a test next week on talking to your daughter about her choice of young men…while she’s having her period. Please study and practice this in your free time. Your name will be publicly displayed on a list of all adults in your city ranking you according to your overall competence, and your poor performance in “Parenting” will drag down your rank.

I am thrilled to be working with you and feel so fortunate that this new government program is free and forced upon every adult to make sure they’re living the best life they can and making us an economic powerhouse (did I just say that?).

In the near future I’ll set up a new schedule for you because you’re not using your time very efficiently or effectively. I took an advanced course on time management in college—did you? Didn’t think so.

Here’s a copy of Fifty Shades. It’s due on the 12th along with a 1 page report on it.

See you tomorrow!

As Effective as Prohibition

Prohibition alcohol disposal
I’ve asked young children, “If you were president, what would you do to make our country a better place?”

It’s not uncommon for their responses to begin with, “I would make everyone…” Even my own young children have responded this way. It’s an immature approach to quick-fixing a deeply rooted problem.

That’s how the government decided to deal with the United States’ alcohol problem in 1919.

“Lives are being destroyed by alcohol–what should we do about it?

“Ban it, of course!”

And that, in a nutshell, is the standard approach to resolving problems with our education system and the children within it.

Johnny doesn’t want to learn addition today? Just make him learn it!

Janie doesn’t want to go to school? Just make her go!

Teacher doesn’t want to follow the curriculum? Just make her follow it!

What?! Our high school dropout rate is up to 33%?! Then we need to legally force them to graduate!*

Of course, 33% of the children in the US are not irresponsible or incapable of learning. The problem lies with the tenets and practices of Schoolism†. But instead of reevaluating and fixing their own system, they simply force or manipulate people into to staying in it. It’s the antithesis of the principles the United States was founded on. It’s the antithesis of humanity.

As for the outcome–like prohibition, forced learning results in either thoughtless, superficial obedience or rebellion.

And when all the young people are earning a diploma against their will–obediently following the one path laid out for them by the bureaucracy–the Schoolists can proudly show that their system has a 100% “success” rate.


*President Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address, “So tonight, I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.”
†”Schoolism”: Our conventional ideas about education and learning that have generated a cult-like following

Raising Observant Children: 10 ideas

The Raising Innovators workshop I led on Saturday went really well, and I’m excited to do another new and improved version soon. I did receive some feedback that parents were seeking more ideas for how to apply the principles we discussed. Here is an overview of the topic we discussed, accompanied by a list of ideas:

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein spent over a decade researching the creative process of scores of creative and innovative individuals and discovered 13 thinking tools that were common across all fields. Saturday I led a workshop in which we discussed 3 of these thinking tools and how to foster them in our children.

The one we discussed the most (and which the Root-Bernsteins—and I—believe is the most important) is observation.

Why the most important? Because it is the lens through which all knowledge is acquired, and you cannot fully use or develop the other thinking tools without honing your powers of observation.

I tend to focus on principles and shy away from telling people how to apply them, and this workshop was no exception—we threw out just a few ideas of how to raise more observant children after exploring the principle of observation at length. But I also understand that it can be helpful to get ideas to start experimenting with. Here are a few simple ideas to help you get started honing your child’s, and your own, observation skills. Inspire your children by doing them yourself, too:

1. Put something together using a manual.

A piece of furniture from IKEA, a LEGO car, a new appliance—let your children look at the illustrations and find the corresponding pieces. If the child is ready, allow her to try to follow the instructions and put the pieces together. Let her make mistakes and keep attempting. Resist the urge to correct immediately or give hints if they get it wrong the first time. Unless they really want a hint, of course, or have no interest in helping with the project; generally children are eager to help with adult work and want to try doing things themselves when given the chance.

2. Start a collection.

When you collect different kinds of things in the same family, you become very good at distinguishing their differentiating characteristics. Rocks tend to look very similar until you start collecting them and looking at them frequently. Don’t limit your collection possibilities to tangible objects. You can start a sound collection: city sounds, nature sounds, bird calls, music, classical music, jazz music. All classical music used to sound similar to me before I studied several composers and their music. Start a texture collection—fabric scraps, bark from different trees, moss, rough and smooth rocks, etc.

3. Slow down.

Allow time for yourself and your children to stop and smell the flowers. Follow a grasshopper, catch a toad, look at the patterns in the tree bark of different trees (or find pictures in it, or feel the different textures of different tree bark, smell it, put it in your mouth and get in touch with your inner baby), watch workers down in the storm drain, a construction project. Take one or two pictures every day of a construction project near your home from the same spot and watch it in time lapse when it’s finished. Children are good at this; we adults have a tendency to hurry them along.

4. Quiet moments & total silence.

Make sure to have plenty of quiet (literal and figurative) moments; our powers of observation weakened when there are distractions. OR have everyone close his or her eyes and remain totally silent. What do you hear? Try doing this in the same place every day for a week. Do you notice more new sounds each time? Try the same exercise focusing on feelings inside your own body–areas of tension and relaxation, cooler and warmer parts of the body, full or empty belly, heart beating, tingles, other sensations or sounds.

5. Savor your food.

Every so often, instead of having a normal conversation at mealtime, I ask the kids what they notice about what they’re eating. They describe the flavors, tastes and textures and how they compliment each other. Do you like crunchy and creamy together? Sweet and salty? Tart and savory? Sometimes I miss enjoying my food because I’m thinking about other things.

6. Blind taste test.

Bake a different brownie (or other) recipe or half recipe once a week for several weeks. Freeze several small squares of each and label so that you know which came from which recipe. Then thaw the brownies and taste and compare blindfolded. Have each person describe textures and tastes. Is one more bitter than the others? Sweeter? Chewier? Softer? Fluffier? Denser? Crumbly or fudgy? Rank them according to preference and guess which came from which recipe.

7. Learn to draw.

Take a class or develop your skills yourself using the Picasso approach: Draw the same simple object from the same perspective over and over again. Before you draw it each time, observe it and write down as many different characteristics as you can. Each time you will think you’ve exhausted your list; but new characteristics will pop out at you each time.

8. Learn photography.

Not quite as effective as learning how to draw, but still very eye-opening.

9. People watch.

Go to a public place and watch people. Watch their facial expressions and mannerisms and try to guess how they’re feeling, if they’re in a hurry, if they’re lost in thought, and anything else you might want to guess about them. Pay attention to the eyebrows, forehead, mouth, jaw, eyes, shoulders, hands.

10. Allow children to discover answers and mistakes.

Passivity is learned. Human beings are born with a drive to learn, grow, and progress. Young children are innately so observant because of this drive—observation is how they take it all in, how they begin to learn about everything so they can grow and progress. When we intervene in the natural process of learning by giving children the answers, or pointing out all their mistakes before they get a chance to do those things themselves, we are doing the observing for them and bypassing the steps they would go through on their own, straight to the end result—without the depth of understanding or excitement and fulfillment that accompanies the lengthier natural process.

Learning—or “learning”—seems to happen so quickly in conventional methods of education because this natural process is bypassed and you arrive straight at the solution so quickly, allowing you to move on to collecting more answers without pausing, in a sort of intellectual academic, mental binge. Don’t be fooled by the speed, rigor, and early ages at which they are learning. Though at first it may seem as though your child is “behind” (or learning too slowly or not enough) when they are going through the natural learning process—asking their own questions and discovering their own answers…observing for themselves instead of learning to rely on someone else to observe for them—there is a strength and depth of knowledge, wisdom, and character growing inside that cannot be measured by a standardized test.

They are mastering the art of how to learn and grow; and when they’ve mastered that, they will have the power to learn and do everything they need to in order to reach their fullest potential.

Workshop: Raising Innovators

This is a free event. Limited to 40 people.
Eventbrite - Raising Innovators: 3 Timeless thinking tools to change the world

Raising Innovators

Play at Work and School

Theodore Roosevelt said, “When you play, play hard; when you work, don’t play at all” –and the sentiment persists today. No fun while working. Just get the job done.

But is it true?

What really happens when you play at work? Or with your work?


Pilobolus dance company had hit a wall one hot humid afternoon in 1981. They had been trying to choreograph a new dance for hours and hours in a “steamy rehearsal barn,” but hadn’t made any progress.

Then the rain stopped and the sun came out, coaxing them out of the barn for a much needed break. They stomped in the puddles and mud and climbed on the roof. The stomping quickly turned into dancing—for fun, from the heart, not because they had to—and voila! A new dance took shape, seemingly of its own accord. They gave this dance a fitting name: “Day 2.”

It’s as if it already existed somewhere deep within…or without..and gained a body through their playfulness. I believe it does.

Play gives birth to creativity because it taps into intuition, deep emotion and desires, which are where creative ideas are conceived. Creative ideas cannot be conceived in boredom, frustration or pessimism.

Does our education system tap into our children’s intuition, deep emotion and desires? I believe conventional schools, in general, attempt to do exactly the opposite–disconnect children from their intuition, emotion and desires…at least to a certain extent. It’s incredibly difficult to control and mold a child–let alone a classroom–the way you (or the state) want to, if he is in tune with his own intuition, emotions and desires. You need to make your desires–your one plan and timetable for all of them–the desires of the child as well. And if they don’t comply, you must use external punishments and rewards–excuse me, “consequences”–so at least their behavior complies. And if that doesn’t work, then drugs are justified.

“Don’t listen to your own intuition and desires; they’re not important” is the message, “just listen to me and follow my directions.” There may be a time and a place for that, but children’s lives today are so micro-managed by adults that play and agency–indeed democracy–in education has all but vanished.*

And so we need to create classes in college for engineers that teach them how to be creative because they have lost the ability! And college classes where students take apart mechanical devices and put them back together–something children who are inclined to that field have done on their own throughout history! Until recently, of course.

Bring play back to work and school!

The playful dancer, like those in Pilobolus, asks questions like, “What if we danced below an imaginary ceiling that was only 3 feet above the ground?” or “What if our audience was watching us dance from below, not in front of us? What would that look like?” and through playing around with weird and fun ideas, becomes an innovator…and enjoys a rich and fulfilling life.

And that’s exactly what Pilobolus did–choreograph a dance that was intended to be viewed from below. My family had the opportunity to see this exciting work of art live:

*Think kids today have more freedom than ever? Think again. In a study done by Dr. Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, he discovered that teens under 18 today have fewer freedoms than incarcerated felons, and twice as many restrictions. Here’s an example of a truly playful, democratic school, and studies of its graduates show they thrive in adulthood–Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts:

What is “The Real World?”

“Where do your kids go to school?”
“We actually homeschool.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Unfortunately, they have to learn how to get along in the real world,” she said amiably.

I paused a moment to consider her honest and well-intentioned remark.

I glanced around.

We were standing backstage Continue reading