Meet the family “unschooling” their kids in an olive orchard

Lehla Eldridge and her husband Anthony Rogers are pointing a laptop out of their second-story bedroom window. Below them, a cinematic Italian olive orchard stretches into the distance. “This is a kind of typical Umbrian landscape,” Anthony says.

I’m amazed by what they’re showing me on Skype. Not only is this the beautiful view from their home, it’s the beautiful view from their children’s classroom as well.

“I think most of the people around here know that we’re the English family who have three children,” Lehla says. “But I don’t know if they know they go to school or don’t go to school.”

Whether or not the local Italians know about Anthony and Lehla’s approach to schooling their kids, you can expect they would be quite intrigued. “The Italian schooling system is very rote-learning driven,” says Anthony, “it’s very structured.” Anthony and Lehla’s approach… is not.

Lehla and Anthony are English, but they’ve been “unschooling” their three children, Amari (11), Olive (11), and Jahli (9) in Italy since 2012. Lehla says her family’s approach is similar to self-directed learning, where “if kids want and need to learn, they learn.”

There’s no “typical” school day for the kids, Lehla says. But generally, they start their day by gathering for breakfast, before the kids all decide what they want to do. Sometimes they’ll do projects, read, go on Khan Academy, or check Big Questions on School in the Cloud. “They choose how they run their day,” says Lehla, “I follow them.”

Prior to engaging with this learning approach, Lehla says there seemed to be a “general unease and closing down of the kids’ spirits, energy levels, and enjoyment in life every time they were in a school setting.” So, she and Anthony explored ways they could school the kids instead.

After visits to some self-directed learning schools that proved to be too expensive, and another stint at an Italian school that closed after about six months there, Lehla and Anthony decided to let their kids learn at home. “Yes, it can be challenging,” Lehla says, “but it is also inspiring to watch our kids unfold into who they are.”

As part of their “unschooling” approach, Lehla and Anthony’s children will form their own self-organised learning environments (SOLEs) to answer Big Questions from School in the Cloud. Sometimes their children will be inspired to answer the questions by writing, making films, taking photographs, drawing, or dressing up.

“The best SOLE moment we have had without a shadow of a doubt,” says Lehla, “was when we hooked up with another SOLE on Twitter.” The SOLE on the other end was a classroom in New Jersey.

Lehla and Anthony’s kids asked questions back and forth with the class. One question was about the Underground Railroad. Lehla says learning about Harriet Tubman’s work to abolish slavery inspired deep learning in her children — so much so that they decided to create and record a puppet show about Tubman’s efforts. “I found it very inspiring and moving,” Lehla says, “It was a beautiful portrayal of a harrowing story.”

While her children are answering Big Questions, Lehla will in turn ask them to the School in the Cloud community as well.

Her most recent question “Do identical twins think the same thoughts?” was featured as part of the Big Question Challenge.

Lehla says her question about twins was meant to open up other questions, even if it didn’t have an answer. Plus, she has first-hand experience with the subject, because her two daughters are identical twins.

“I was interested to ask them whether they thought they thought the same thoughts,” she says. “Often, I think they do, and I can almost hear them thinking.”

Lehla and Anthony invited their daughters to join our chat, to give their thoughts on the question. They agreed: “Sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t.”

Anthony and Lehla are nearly three years into “unschooling” their kids. So far, everyone seems quite happy with the experience. “When kids learn on their own, but have good guides around them,” says Lehla, “I think the learning takes on a whole new dimension, as respect is given back to the kid and ultimately faith that children can be self-directed learners.” Anthony adds, “It is a respect for the fact that children are born wanting to learn.”

You can learn more about the Eldridge-Rogers family’s “unschooling” experience, and the olive orchard they live on, at unschoolingthekids.com.

And follow them at:
@unschoolthekids and facebook.com/unschoolthekids

How do we remember and why do we forget?

Sugata Mitra, founder of School in the Cloud, posed an intriguing question on You Tube: How do we remember and why do we forget? His question was more than just a question. It was a Big Question, and it kicked off Skype in the Classroom’s Big Question Challenge in 2015 — an opportunity for select educators around the world to submit their own Big Question videos which students then answered by forming SOLEs.

Rebekah Davis, a teacher in North Carolina, says her students used self-organized learning to answer Sugata’s Big Question and “surprised themselves with how much they were able to learn in such a short amount of time.” Here’s some of their results:

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Elisa Farrell, a third grade teacher outside of Dallas, Texas says her students used SOLEs to answer Sugata’s question as well. “We’ve had research lessons before,” she says, “but seeing their approach to this question (being deliberately hands-off!) was a good eye-opener on future topics to cover.”

Some of those future topics Elisa mentions could be created by you, or your students!

There’s also further inspiration for Big Questions from Sage Franch:

Or this one from Mark Wood:

 

Sally Rix: Greenfield TED Prize Lab update

Just before school broke up for the summer I visited the TED Prize lab at Greenfield Community College in County Durham. Their SOLE room – also known as Room 13 – opened in February of this year and I was curious to know how the children had found the first 5 months or so of their SOLE experience.

I was greeted by an absolutely delightful group of students, all of whom have had the opportunity to use the room quite regularly since it opened. I found their thoughts on the subject fascinating so I thought I’d share a selection of them here…

I’m curious about the room itself (it’s really beautiful!); I have done SOLEs in a traditional classroom setting and I wanted to know whether the students thought it was important to have a specific environment dedicated to the process.

It turns out they think it’s really important: “It’s more calming, more child-friendly” and “It’s better in the room, it’s more exciting.” Although there were questions too “But could it distract you? Like some people just want to mess around with the bunnies.”

When asked about whether the room would maintain its appeal over time they were honest about the novelty effect, “It depends how it’s kept, it needs updating every 6 months or something, then people won’t lose interest.”

One of the things that greatly impressed me was their sophisticated understanding of the concept of self-organised learning. When asked how the room was different to the rest of school they explained that,

“It’s independent. No teachers telling you what to do. You do it in your own way.”
“You’re given an objective and you get into groups. You can change groups. You do the research in the time given to find an answer.”
“It’s not the question and our answers that’s the point, it’s how we go about it and get our independent knowledge.”

A question about how students behave in the room resulted in an interesting exchange which further detailed their understanding:

“There are two groups of people, people who abuse the trust and people who embrace it and think about the task and about what’s possible.”
“Some people feel like they should mess about, messing about is learnt behaviour and if this room can teach people to change that behaviour, that’s great.”
“Certain people can’t change though, they’ve been acting how they’re acting so long that they can’t be different.”
“You login on a teacher’s account so there’s no Firewall. So some people told me they spend the lesson on Facebook or Twitter.”
“They should monitor what people do during the sessions.”
“No, they shouldn’t! That defeats the point of self-organising.”
“Let people go on Facebook if they want to, maybe they will get it out of their system and then they might not do it any more. It’s more exciting if it’s not allowed so say it’s ok and they might not.”

Next the teacher asked them which other areas of school were most like Room 13 and I was really interested to see that the places they listed were some of their ‘favourite’ spaces and all tended to be linked to creativity:

“The dance studio.” “Art.” “The Astroturf.” “The bottom of the field surrounded by trees.”

The students then turned this conversation into a discussion about the future of learning:

“This is an opportunity to start a different kind of education about how people can lead fulfilled lives and be good citizens. Room 13 is the next step to making that.”
“The worst thing about education is that we’re told where we have to be and how we have to be all the time. There are things we need for our brains but also things we need as human beings, if we learn all of these we could be the most evolved humans ever.”

Clearly the extracts here have been selected and interpreted by me; I have endeavoured to be as balanced as possible but the disclaimer is still appropriate!

I would particularly like to thank the teacher who managed the session and the students themselves for their incredibly thoughtful and articulate responses, it was an absolute pleasure to be allowed to listen in. If you would like to learn more about what has been happening in Room 13, please check out their blog at http://greenfieldarts.wordpress.com/