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The Ultimate Guide to Gameschooling

So you know about homeschooling, worldschooling and unschooling. Maybe you've heard of hackschooling or gamification... So what on earth is gameschooling? Cat Timms has the ultimate (and we mean MEGA!) guide for you AND a bonus download!

Children playing in water happily

Words and images by Cat Timms | LightHeart Photography

Gameschooling is a term whose origin cannot be traced, but it has been around for a while. It has been more recently popularised into homeschool culture by absolute legend and lovely lady, Caitlin Fitzpatrick Curley, educational psychologist and homeschooling mama of gifted kiddos, of My Little Poppies fame, who also created the international Facebook group Gameschool Community. Her blog is a literal treasure trove and is referred to several times.

In the homeschool community, gameschooling means to use tabletop gaming (board games and card games) in an intentional way, as part of your personal homeschool culture and educational philosophy. Rather than playing games occasionally just for fun, gameschooling families see them as essential to their homeschool daily or weekly for a variety of reasons (including fun!).

Let’s talk about the why, how, what and troubleshoot some issues.

Why gameschool?

  • Games are fun. I have a few overarching personal philosophies for my life, and one of them is “If it’s not fun, why bother?”. I can see the strict homeschool mamas rolling their eyes, “But life isn’t all fun!”. No, it isn’t. But we’re adults now; we can let them be little. We can make almost anything fun, or at least add an element of fun. We make chores into games; a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down, as it were. Your kid doesn’t find games fun? Read on, I have a section for you coming up.
  • Games create positive family culture. One of my main motivations for game playing now is to create a thing we all do together, that will carry through the teen years (which my husband and I both had terrible times with our parents and it scares us, lol) and into adulthood. I like to imagine 20-somethings coming home for dinner with a partner and sticking around for a game afterwards. I’ll let you know in 20 years how it worked out Read this by One Board Family too.
  • Good games exercise your brain. Puzzling over strategies, watching your opponents or team members to figure out what to do next to get to a desired goal, problem solving, logical thought processes and more.
  • Games build interpersonal skills. Graciously winning and losing, discussing ideas, contributing as or to a group, taking turns, waiting etc. are all parts of playing tabletop games which are valuable lifeskills.
  • Games will teach actual things if you so desire. I’m not that into games always being super educational, though we certainly have our fair share. There are lots of well-designed tabletop games, also called hobby games, that happen to be educational as an excellent game (and I will discuss those later) and games you can get that are designed to be educational. So, if formal learning is your thing, games have you covered.
  • Things learnt joyfully are best remembered. Not much explanation required here. It just is.

Further reading on the why of gameschooling:

How do you gameschool?

This is asked ALL THE TIME in the gameschool groups and there isn’t a simple answer to that question, because everyone homeschools differently. If you believe in teaching and curriculums, then games will supplement that and add some fun. If you unschool, then you might research games you think your kids might like, then show them the ones that fit your budget etc and see if they’re interested, and games would be the most formal thing you do, probably.

We personally are secular and eclectic here. We do very little formal work, only in English and Maths, and we do a lot of excursions (field trips), workshops, classes and play dates. I encourage my kids to be open and interested in everything. We try a lot, and what doesn’t work for us we leave but we try not to say no to things for no reason, particularly if they’re new.

This adventurous spirit carries into gaming. We’ll try any game! We play 2-4 games a day. I usually choose one for an educational purpose and the rest are child-led. They often suggest we play a game, then choose one themselves. They’re at very different gaming levels currently which is challenging, and I have a whole section for you toddler mamas coming up, don’t worry!

The ultimate guide to gameschooling on The Mulberry Journal

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Choose the time you play games carefully, particularly when learning new games.

While “Family Game Night” is great in theory, maybe it needs to be at breakfast because tired children do not the best gamers make. We do play games after dinner, but only ones the kids know really well, plus they’re experienced gamers now. We often play games around mealtimes.

Because we don’t have a schedule, I’m not super helpful here. I know that homeschool mamas who do have a school schedule do things like:

  • Have one game be a focus for the week and play it each day
  • Use a game to start or conclude a lesson, to introduce or reinforce an idea or concept
  • Use games as quizzes
  • Use games as part of a unit study
  • Use games to teach one subject (maths is exceptionally popular)
  • Play games at the start or end of their school day
  • Ask teens to teach/play kindergartners games while they work with their in-between-age kids
  • Do game afternoons particularly with other homeschool friends

In essence, do what works for you and your family situation. There’s no right or wrong way.

What games do you play?

Oh, brother. The dreaded question. This gets posted multiple times a day in the gameschool group. The answer is “infinity times infinity, pass the coffee/wine/chocolate.” Seriously. It’s not a bad question; it’s a great question! It’s just that there are a million answers. We could be here all day. Let’s start the beginning:

  1. How old are your kids and what stages are they at? Games can be great for various types of neurodivergent kids to learn or practice things, particularly for gifted kids to flex their muscles. There is a game for EVERYTHING. Also important is their reading level as some games require independent reading.
  2. What are their interests? I would always start with games you are confident your kids will be interested in, before introducing games you want them to play.
  3. How much time, energy and money will you spend on gaming? Obviously, you may not know this until you start, so I’d start slow with some simple, basic games to see how it goes, before investing. The other side to that argument is that there are some really great games out there that the whole family will love, and if you don’t try them you may be missing out thinking you don’t like games. Ideally, you’d borrow before some you buy as these bigger games can be very expensive. I’ve set up a group for Australian homeschoolers to discuss, borrow, buy, and sell games called Gameschooling Australia.
  4. Will you and your partner/friends play? There is a high replayability on those bigger well-designed tabletop/hobby games (that are usually not overtly educational) and they’re generally more fun for the adults. You can justify buying these for more than just homeschool purposes if that is the case. We have a lot of these and the adults around here play.
  5. Are there groups for selling locally? I’m always more willing to fork out some dollars if I know I can get some back if the game really isn’t for us. I have successfully sold all the games I’ve wanted to sell so far for 25-90% of what I paid in Facebook groups.

So, I've thought about all that, now what?

I suggest joining the groups and following pages on Facebook to learn and get ideas. I’ll also link to the blogs for those not on Facebook (Don't have Facebook? HOW DO YOU LIVE?! Kidding, it is useful for groups though!).

In addition to those homeschool blogs and pages, US families are going to find Amazon VERY useful! For the rest of us, it can be expensive and they don’t always ship to us. I do buy from there occasionally though. Board Game Geek is a great website for researching on, and serious gamers keep lists there. I’m yet to venture into it but I often check there for reviews and information.

Do we just grab Monopoly and get playing?

There are so many games to choose from. I know, it’s overwhelming. I would probably just head to Target or a good games shop and pick one. I haven’t yet mentioned the dreaded M word because that is what people think of when we talk about games. We do have a copy of *whispers* Monopoly somewhere I think, but we don’t play it. Because it’s not well designed and very boring; there are no interesting choices or strategies, and its very luck based. Outraged? Sorry. Check out this YouTube to understand more.

If you love Monopoly then your mind will be blown when you play a well-designed tabletop game! Gamers often talk about “gateway games”. These are the simpler but still well-designed tabletop that use game mechanisms that the bigger games do, have a high replayability factor, and are a great way to start games culture in your family if you are looking beyond the purely educational.

Here are some of my favourite gateway games:

  • Forbidden Island is a cooperative game where each person has a role and you work together (for 5yo+).
  • Carcassonne is tile building game (for 6yo+).
  • Sushi Go is a great gateway game for card drafting (for 5yo+) and includes addition.
  • Skip-bo is a surprisingly good card game and a great intro to strategy games (for 6yo+).
  • Dragonwood is a dice and card game which includes addition (for 6yo+).

All of those games are ones that the adults here really enjoy, so won’t bore you quickly. I could list 10 more, but I’m going to leave that list there. There are a million games lists you can Google. If you’re only looking for educational games that you can slot into subject areas for your kids then check out this ultimate games list. It’s comprehensive and well laid out, and we own many of the games on it.

A list of recommended games

Games we love to play
  • Alien HotShots
  • Alphabet Bingo
  • Alphabet Go Fish
  • Busytown
  • Carcassonne Big Box
  • Chess
  • Chomp
  • Colourama
  • Connect 4
  • Dinosaur Snap
  • Dr Eureka
  • Dragonwood
  • Forbidden Island
  • Go Nuts
  • Learning Can Be Fun games x 5
  • Legendary Inventors
  • Loonacy
  • Machi Koro with expansions
  • Math Bingo
  • Math Dice
  • Mousetrap Maths
  • Oceanos
  • Orchard Toys games x 3
  • Pandemic with expansions
  • Pass the bomb Jnr
  • Rat a tat cat
  • Scrabble Jnr
  • Skip-Bo
  • Sumoku
  • Sushi Go
  • Storycubes x 5
  • Takenoko
  • Uno
  • Upwords
  • Yam Slam
  • At least 30 homemade games from various places and my own inventions
Adult games we own but don't play with kids yet
  • Cosmic Encounter
  • Innovation
  • Sentinels of the multiverse
Games we've put away and don't play with yet
  • 7 Wonders Duel
  • Apples to Apples
  • Brave Rats
  • Ion
  • Link It
  • Ringz
  • Sequence
  • Ticket to Ride Europe
  • Wildcraft
Great games we've borrowed from friends
  • Catan
  • Seasons
  • Sum Swamp
  • Zeus on the loose
  • Coup
  • Love Letter
Games on my wish list
  • Alhambra
  • Castle Panic
  • Dixit
  • Hit the Habitat Trail
  • Hive Pocket
  • MMRY
  • Pandemic Legacy
  • Prime Climb
  • Splendor
  • Xtronaut

Phew, that’ll do?! That’s not an exhaustive list, either. This article explains the different types of games in a succinct way and might be useful too.

A word on age recommendations

Most games include age recommendations which is a rough guide. Game makers need to be careful; if they put the starting age too young, then they won’t be bought for older children, and if the age is too high, people will think it’s too hard. Most gameschoolers take age recommendations with A CUP of salt. My 7-year-old can play games that say 13-years-old + but he is a weak reader. If there was a big reading component he wouldn’t be able to play. He also enjoys plenty of games that I’d put in the “Early Childhood” category.

If your 8-year-old child is new to games then they will find Dragonwood challenging at first, as it’s not a luck game; it’s a strategy game with interesting choices. But my 4-year-old can play with assistance because she’s been playing games since she was a toddler.

For Australian families!

A little section just for us Aussies. G’day, mates! (sorry, that’s for the rest of the world who think we talk like that, lol).

1. I have yet to find an Australian gameschooler who blogs about gameschooling so that’s why there isn’t one listed here. If you are one, then yay! Let us know. People keep saying I should start one but I have two part time jobs already so I just can’t. You can always find me on IG at @ahumanattempt and in Gameschooling Australia.

2. It’s really difficult to find games about Australia that aren’t caricatures of Australia, and sometimes a bit racist in my opinion. They seem designed for the tourist rather than Australians. If you know of one, PLEASE let us know! There are a few printables floating about, none of which are great, so making my own game about the Australian states is on my to do list. It’s listed right after “Learn about the Australian states.”

3. There are some great Aussie sites to know about, and support if you can! If you have more to add to this list, let us know!

What's the difference between gamification and game-based learning?

This one's for the nerds like me! Well, in a nutshell, gamification means applying game principles to something (for example, turning a maths sheet into a game) and game-based learning, means using a game that already exists to learn something (like the game Sushi Go to practice addition). Both ideas are useful in homeschooling, but that’s an article on its own! For further reading I suggest:

Many of these articles refer to online or digital gaming which has evolved from tabletop gaming. All of these, and the ‘why’ list, should be great fodder for anyone who wants to argue against game playing, or allocating funds to buy games

Common questions

“I’ve checked out the lists and blogs and now there are 3 games that I want. How do you narrow it down?”

Particularly when you’re on a budget, this can be important. What I do is search the game title and read what I find in the following places:

  1. the My Little Poppies blog
  2. the Gameschool Community Facebook group, and if I don’t find a post, I post on the wall. (This is why it’s really important to put your game titles in your posts in groups!)
  3. other Facebook games groups.
  4. Board Game Geek.
  5. Geek Dad.
  6. YouTube and watch reviews and play throughs.
  7. Read reviews on Amazon. I put this last because in Australia it’s often not cost effective to buy from there.

After all that, I will have an idea whether I think we’ll like it or not. Yeah, it takes some time, but all research does! I’m looking for interesting choices and replayability here, but if you’re looking for something purely educational then it should be simpler to figure out whether it will help with the thing you need. I only buy those types of games if I really need them, and think I can resell them; I am far more likely to find a free printable or make up my own.

“My partner doesn’t want me to spend money on games.”

Send them this article; there is a TONNE of good info linked here. This is a commonly asked problem by mamas in homeschool groups. In my house, if one partner doesn’t want to do the reading and learn about the issue to then have an informed discussion, then the other gets to go ahead using their best judgement. Teamwork makes the dream work, and that means trusting each other too. I am not going to learn about looking after the cars, so hubs just does what he thinks is best there. He is not going to get highly educated about homeschooling, so I’m boss of that. I make a lot of games, and only buy ones I think we’ll really love. I also sell games as I need too, to fund new ones.

“Seriously though, we are on a tight budget.”

Honestly, most homeschoolers are. Everyone’s version of tight is different, and everyone’s priorities are different. We too are on a tight-ish budget. We don’t spend any money at all on curriculums (ever) so I spend on books, games, workshops, classes instead. Tabletop games are not just a homeschool thing; they contribute to family culture too. So if you occasionally have a family day or meal out or trip to the movies, you can consider a good tabletop game in the same category but it’s reusable, and you should be able to sell it for around half what you paid when the time comes. Here are some other ideas:

  • Buy secondhand. I buy most of our games secondhand and I get good deals this way.
    • Facebook groups. I buy mostly in Facebook groups, occasionally from other local secondhand sites. You just need to keep your eye out, and also put up “want to buy” posts as sometimes people are thinking about selling a game but can’t be bothered, but if they can quickly PM you and get it done hassle-free, it’s a win-win.
    • Op shop/thrift stores/goodwill. You rarely find the better tabletop games at these places here in Australia (though the US mamas seem too all the time!) but you will find lots of staple games like Scrabble, and card games. I will buy very cheap games with some good pieces for reusing.
  • Buy when you see it. If you see a game you want on sale or secondhand, buy it if it’s good price, even if it’s a stretch. I put them away so then I’m not looking at paying full price come Christmas and birthdays or when I want a game to teach something in particular. I currently have 15 games in the cupboard for the future, lol.
  • Give them as gifts. Each birthday each one of us gets a game, preferably one we’ll enjoy (so I can justify that expense) and then at Christmas we get a couple. That means we’re getting 6-8 games through the year because we all love games in addition to ones I make.
  • Get some gameschool friends. I’ve introduced several local friends to gameschooling, mainly by lending them games, and they’ve soon bought their own, and so we’ve been able to swap games with them. I won’t buy games they have unless we can’t live without it (hasn’t happened yet!).
  • Buy copies. On Ebay there are many stores that sell copies of popular games. They’re not the legit version, and so the original gamemakers aren’t getting their dues (which is one of the reasons I don’t buy them) but you can buy copies of games very cheap and they tend to be OK quality and complete sets etc, most of the time, but not always, bear in mind.
  • Make your own! Homeschoolers tend to be crafty and resourceful. Read on.

“I want to make my own games. Help.”

You can make your own games very cheaply, and indeed I make TONNES of them. You can buy books that have things to photocopy and make, or get free printables from all over the internet. You can attempt to replicate popular games, particularly using game pieces and boards from games you’ve bought cheaply secondhand (this is where op shops/goodwill are handy). Remember that challenging your kids to make their own game is a great activity too.

There are links all over the place here – this is an ULTIMATE guide after all – so read back but here is yet another collection of links to get you started:

“My kid doesn’t find games fun. We have meltdowns over rules/winning/losing. It just won’t work for us.”

Ah, yes. I understand. I know a few kids including my nephew and son who have worked through game rage. I’d argue that these children may need to play games more than anyone else! Games are a great way to learn to handle and reframe ‘failure’, practice gracious winning and losing, handling disappointment, trying again etc. Not all things will work for all families, and you may want to use a few of these ideas in concert, but here are some things to consider:

  • Play cooperatively. This is my number one tip. Play cooperative games where you all work as a team. Forbidden Island, Pandemic and Wildcraft are all popular here, and Caitlin has this post with a huge list to help you. They’ll still be disappointed, but it’s a lot less than if they weren’t on a team.
  • Change the rules. Linked to playing cooperatively is: change the rules to suit. Games aren’t games if there aren’t some rules, but you can make them suit your family situation. Make it cooperative, quicker, lighter, less disappointing, whatever. You can build back up to regular rules later.
  • Choose quicker, lighter games. The less time your child has been sitting, the smaller the outburst is likely to be (just based on contained energy). The less energy they have put into trying to win, the less upset they’ll feel, hopefully. Think Uno, Bingo games, Go Fish.
  • Try strategy games. Maybe your child needs to feel more control so rather than luck based games, where you solely rely on the cards you pick up or dice you rolled, try games where they can work towards something. What you choose will depend on your child’s age. Think Connect 4, Carcassonne for older kids, and many others.
  • Play 2 player games. Try 2 player games where just a safe adult and your child play. Losing to just a trusted adult (maybe Grandma?) rather than siblings as well may help too.
  • Let them win sometimes! This is a bone of contention in the gameschool community; to win or not to win?! But as an adult who loves playing games, when my husband or friends constantly smash me at a game, it makes me want to play it a lot less. It’s boring and not fun. Let them win sometimes.
  • Model gracious winning, losing and game play. This should go without saying, but I have seen posts in groups about playing games with adults who have had tantrums in front of children. Oh my. Do not play with any adults that can’t be adult, lol! By all means express yourself, but only in a way you’d be happy for your children to do also. Monkey see, monkey do.
  • Discuss unpleasantness later. Game didn’t go well? Let them express themselves, empathise, and let it go. Lecturing or saying “It’s just a game!” won’t actually help when they’re feeling upset and disappointed, in fact they won’t feel heard. Later on, when they’re calm and have experienced success at something else they like, you can come back to what happened at the game and discuss it as appropriate to your family. Punishing game behaviour will only lead to not wanting to play at all so avoid that at all costs.
  • Try single player games. There are tonnes of single player games. Maybe your child would benefit from working through some things by themselves? Try ThinkFun Maze games, Perplex us, Caboodle, or Chicken Shuffle.
  • Let them create their own game. If they design a game, even just using some cards, counters, dice etc and teach it to you, and have to uphold the rules and game play themselves because they’re in charge, perhaps this will give them the control they need to handle the ups and downs of gaming.
  • Make them Game Master. In a similar vein, try giving them the responsibility for the setup, pack up and running the game. Not that they do it all themselves, but they’re in charge of everyone. Your children may need to take turns at this if it causes friction.
  • Play open. When we learn a game for the first time, we always play open. That means that rather than keeping our cards or whatever to ourselves, we play so everyone can see what everyone has, is doing, and why. Knowing how to play a game better may help with those big feelings.
  • Choose your time carefully. Maybe family game night needs to be family game morning? Tiredness is not going to help games go well. We do the majority of our family game playing before bedtime because we have a fairly traditional work schedule here, but if you can play when everyone is fresh, that may help.
  • Don’t finish. I can hear the gasps, but it’s ok to not finish! Try playing games but without completing them. Start a game when you don’t have time to finish. Enjoy playing, then pack it up and put it away. The fun and learning has happened, without the trauma of the ending. You can of course build up to finishing later.
  • Work on self-regulation. Emotional regulation is not something you can teach necessarily, but it is something you can practice. Of course, you need to model it, and don’t worry, we all lose it sometimes, but the more you model it, the better they will do at it. Also try some of these ideas from PBS, or these ideas from The Inspired Tree House.
  • Growth mindset. Remove the focus from winning and losing all the time. This may not work for competitive kids who are just naturally that way, but focus on the fact that life is a journey, and failure is a construct that really means nothing other than “This one time it didn’t work so we need to try again.”. We are Big Life Journal fans here, and have one of the posters on the fridge.
  • Leave it. And of course, games aren’t for everyone all the time. If you’ve tried on and off for a few weeks, and worked on all these things and it still isn’t going well, then leave it for a while (a season, a year) and try again. Maybe your kid just isn’t going to be a game person? I’ll be honest and say I’m really sceptical about this – I feel like anyone who says they don’t like games just haven’t played the right ones - but anything is possible, of course.

“My kids fight. We can’t play games together.”

Yeah this is a hard one! Caitlin has written a brilliant article at My Little Poppies that I cannot improve upon. She has a list of great ideas, and one I will emphasize is snacks. Lol! Seriously though. Eating a clean food (like plain popcorn, because you don’t want to get your game pieces super dirty) while playing is a great way to keep a game moving along and everyone calm. Read her entire article here. I’ll also add that we regularly play games 1:1 here. Like at least once a week with each child.

“I have a toddler who can’t play but wants to, and ends up wrecking the game in their earnest efforts.”

Mmm, also tricky! I have a few suggestions for this one that have worked here. Firstly, it’s always a good idea to play at nap time, but that isn’t always possible, particularly if mama is pinned under said toddler!

  • Snacks. Seriously, just snacks.
  • Play in teams. Toddler can sit on your lap and hold your cards/roll your dice and be on your team.
  • Give Toddler their own game pieces to play with alongside, or even on the board if they can be careful with the pieces that are part of the game.
  • Let them “play along” even if they’re not playing properly. Let them go through the motions. This requires some patience from your older kid/s and a relatively calm toddler.
  • Play two games at once. I have sat playing a big kids game on one side, and a little kids game on the other, lol. Have your coffee/wine handy.
  • Set up Toddler up with their own activity next to you. Chloe is often happy to draw or paint or play right next to us as long as she feels included.
  • Make them Game Master. Sit them up on top the table (yep!) and let them hand out the cards or roll the dice. This was our main strategy for months and worked well. Obviously, it won’t work for all kids!
  • Screen time. I know this will go against some belief systems, but setting Toddler up with a screen to get some 1:1 time with another kid might be your answer for a while. It’s only a season.
  • Game night. Play when Toddler is in bed for the evening. Less than ideal as we’ve already talked about how this won’t work for some kids if they’re too tired.
  • Play when someone else is around. Get together with a friend, and one of you play a game with the older kids, while one plays with the younger kids. Or wait until Grandma comes for a visit or your partner is available obviously.
  • Take turns to play. Older toddlers might be able to understand waiting their turn for their own game. There are heaps of actually good toddler games to consider. Colourama and Busytown are two that come to mind.
  • Snacks. Did I mention snacks?

Honestly, game playing with small kids around, particularly if you have a couple of them is not going to be easy, so only attempt when you have some patience available. You may decide to wait until everyone is older, and that’s ok, too. Chloe used to grab and throw all the pieces and think she was hilarious, *all the eyerolls*. We just waited her out and now it’s great. It’s a short season, mama, hang in there.

The last word

I trust you’re thoroughly overwhelmed and now have hours of reading ahead to check out all those links. If there is something I haven’t covered here, then please let us know. Have any other suggestion, comment, game recommendation, get in touch! I’d love to hear from you.

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The ultimate guide to gameschooling on The Mulberry Journal

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The ultimate guide to gameschooling on The Mulberry Journal
Cat Timms

Cat Timms

Contributor

Cat is an Australian homeschool mama to 2, Early Childhood Teacher, photographer, and game lover. Cat is passionate about play and uncomplicating home education. She's on Instagram @ahumanattempt and @lightheartphotog.

Retired teacher: ‘We’re doing this all wrong’

Denis Ian is a retired school teacher from New York who has taught more than 4,000 students over his 34 year career. Since retirement he has become an educational advocate who writes about issues concerning educational reform in America, sharing a unique vision that has to be read to be believed.

Boy walking alone

By Denis Ian 

This post was originally featured as a comment on Why School has Stopped Working. We loved it so much we asked Denis if we could publish it as an article. While Denis specifically mentions the American system, we feel it applies to similar systems in Europe and Australasia too.


We’re doing this all wrong.

Some day …. somehow … education will discover a proper obsession.

Until then … children will suffer these testing-despots … and too many adults will make believe it’s all okay. And it’s not.

But let’s be certain about this … there are some things in life that just can’t be measured … because they can’t even be defined. Love. Creativity. Curiosity. Courage. Passion. And those special forces that jolt the spirit and open the mind.

If you want a real thinker to blossom from childhood, don’t measure them at every turn … or condition them to shine on every command. Instead … help them indulge in their own natural curiosities … and they’ll measure themselves and shine for all of ever.

American education has become so disappointing … controlled by didactic gurus and self-imagined geniuses who share one important experience: they have no experience.

Most have never lived in any classroom for longer than a few moments. Short-stay aliens who parachute in … and then dash off … having seen enough, so they think, to deduce this or that … and to pen another bit ridiculousness … mostly for others who share the very same silliness.

Few have ever spent a morning on a kindergarten floor, or in a hot-hot circular discussion with lively seventh graders, or faced off against wing-spreading high schoolers who have suddenly come of age.

They know nothing of real-deal epiphanies … because they’ve never seen one. Or been a part of one. Or watched one unfold before their own eyes.

That’s what classroom teachers see. It’s what they help happen.

They don’t know … or care … about percentiles and modules and averages and statistics. For them, it’s all about kids and how to help ‘em grow.

But these experts make these testing mistakes again and again because … like love or courage or talent … the important things about education can never be measured so neatly … or so efficiently reduced to graphs or charts or tables.

And here’s why.

Education … real, real, real education … is all about people. And every learner, how ever old or young, lugs trunkfuls of variables to this pursuit of … of … of becoming.

Yeah ... becoming. That’s what education is all about … becoming.

But still they try to wow us … or alarm us … with their neat and tidy assessments of the state of “becoming” … with a barrage of numbers and endless inferences that they puzzled into something that doesn’t even look like “becoming” at all. Because it’s not. Not even close.

So … right from the start, they’ve misunderstood what they’re measuring … so why should we ever take them seriously?

Instead of pushing bubble-sheets in front of kids and asking them this or that … why don’t we ask them about the passions they don’t even know they have. And their talents they can’t even see Or the cleverness they take for granted. Or the gift they have for this or that.

And why don’t we just get out of their way most of the time? And stop bothering them so much. Maybe just nudge them now and again to … to become what’s inside those tiny bodies … and those gorgeous little minds.

Let them be

What the hell is so hard to understand? Stop bothering them so much. Let ‘em be.

We should give every child lots of stuff. Like chances to run and sing and dance. And fall down.

Girl playing and dancing freely

Chances to act their age … and we shouldn’t interfere with that. Or insist otherwise. Chances to sample things … and even walk away from certain things that just don’t do it for them.

Give ‘em chance to make choices … as much as possible … because life’s a stream of choices. Practice can’t hurt.

They need chances to work together … and to be left alone. Chances to drift into their own worlds … where they can imagine who they are … or might become.

They should have chances to feel safe … and to take risks. And to tell luscious-lovely lies … and fantabulous tales … that we should all take very seriously … because that works both ways.

We should let them speak marvelous nonsense … and not interrupt … because they’re just exercising their imaginations. So we should listen … and shut up … and give them the floor for a change..

And, of course, we should teach them to speak and to count and to scribble. And all of that will sprout … I promise … but never evenly enough to please those testing-tyrants … or the extra-serious beard-scratchers who just can’t leave childhood alone.

And you know what? This is what happens when the importance of teaching is cheapened … when professionals are shoved aside because some Ivy League fat-head has decided that teaching is a science … when it’s not. It’s more like conducting … or being in a play … or traveling in time. And most of all …. it’s about remembering. And becoming.

This is what happens when some of us grow too old and become too forgetting of those teachers who swerved our lives … and helped us wriggle out of our cocoons.

Those fuzzy memory-people who polished some talent no one else saw. Or who just whispered us a perfect kindness at the perfect moment …when it was so badly needed. Or who just loved watching us … become someone we never ever imagined we might be. Someone like me.

You get the point? We’re obsessed about the wrong stuff.

We’re doing this all wrong.

Do you agree with Denis' poetic vision for a new kind of education? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Jenny Diaz

Denis Ian

Contributor

Denis is a retired public school teacher with 34 years of experience teaching social studies and English. He is now an educational advocate who writes nationally about issues concerning educational reform in the United States and around the world. He lives in Westchester County, New York.

Why school has stopped working

School, in its current form, is destroying children's innate love of learning and ultimately, their true sense of self as learners. Here's why.

By Grace Koelma | Editor of The Mulberry Journal

It's often said that the purpose of education is to 'prepare kids for life'. This statement is thrown around by parents, teachers, principals, curriculum writers and the media. While it's a fairly true statement (though I would dig deeper and say a true education is a life in itself, not something you do before you start 'living') - the irony is it's being used to justify a current approach to Western education that is, in fact, grossly outdated and out of context.

An important note on teachers

When school is referenced during this article, I'm referring to the institution of the education system, the complex and historical web of rules and policies about what education looks like, and how that filters down through school heirarchies. Teachers are not to blame. They're working within a flawed system, and many of them are good-hearted and care deeply about fostering a love of learning in their students.

But even though I know many teachers, am closely related to teachers, (and was one myself once!) I think this message should not be held back, at the risk of offending them. They do great work! I stayed silent for too long, not wanting to look like a 'school basher'. But the school system needs reform. On a global scale. Urgently.

So why does this outdated education system need significant, meaningful reform?

Curiosity is becoming an endangered species

Humans are wired to learn, and learning happens everywhere. As humans, we are born naturally curious about our world and how it works, and learning flows on from that. Curiosity and learning occurs without the presence of a degree-qualified teacher and 2-kilogram textbooks. Don't believe me? Just watch a 6-month-old baby look at themselves in the mirror for the first time, or learn to crawl.

School (the institution) loves to make itself the monopoly on education, and it's astonishing how many people still believe that learning can only happen inside the school gates, between the hours of 9 and 3. But it's simply not true.

Learning happens everywhere and all the time.

It does happen in school, but it also happens in the park, on a bushwalk, getting lost driving to your Uncle's rural property, shopping online and swimming in your friend's pool. And I'd argue the learning that happens outside of school is much more memorable and relevant than much of what's in textbooks.

But the reality is that, on some level, school still works. There are still some (albeit infrequent) moments where school does inspire this innate curiosity in their students, where a specific teacher or science incursion or theatre performance lights up a child, and creates that wonderful, spontaneous thing we call natural learning.

The problem is, that the nature of school - the bells, the periods, the lines at the end of recess - means open-ended, student-directed learning time is limited, cut short or so often followed by a test 'to make sure you've retained everything we outlined in the lesson plan'. The quality of learning is handicapped and undermined by this continual assessment agenda.

There's nothing that stamps out the true love of learning more quickly than standardised testing and benchmarking.

But don't take my word for it. You can read peer-reviewed, substantial scientific studies here, here, here, here and here on how testing negatively affects student motivation and self-efficacy.

And while childhood anxiety is on the rise, this isn't a new phenomenon. ​A 2002 collaborative study found that students reported significant anxiety and tension in relation to testing. But the anxiety went deeper than a bit of butterflies in the hallway before an exam.

In today's schools, how you perform during an exam defines who you are

This summary of multiple studies concluded that "students incorporated their teacher’s evaluation of them into the construction of their identity as learners."

​I'll say it again, because it's crucial. Student's anxious reaction to testing became part of the way they saw themselves as learners. In that they thought because they didn't suit test environments, 'they were stupid'. And considering that learning is one of the most immediate and natural things a human does, from birth, this is very concerning. Because it's a straight out lie.

*Worth adding here that exam culture can also create high achievers who learn how to 'work the system' and get high grades every time. But this is detrimental too, because they will leave school with a different message: 'I'm really smart'. And while that may be true in many cases, it's really only one kind of smart. The lack of school preparation for how to be agile, creative and innovative in the real world will render them feeling useless and frustrated when they don't get A grades in uni, or promoted quickly in their career.

I don't think it's possible to be 'bad at learning', but it is possible to believe that lie.

There have been significant correlations drawn from hundreds of autopsies conducted on America's misguided No Child Left Behind policy. Researcher Geneva Gay has looked at qualitative and quantitative data spanning decades, and surmised the impact of a national plan that has failed to deliver on what it promised. She raises key findings around student victimisation.

"Achievement gaps will continue and even expand; more and more children will be victimized and then punished for being victims… Coercive, subterfuge and ‘one size fits all’ educational reform strategies simply are not reasonable or viable bases on which to build constructive educational futures for a nation in desperate need of new directions that are genuinely egalitarian across ethnic, racial, social, cultural, linguistic and ability differences." (p. 291) Gay 2007

​But America isn't the only country whose education system is in dire straights. After England introduced National Curriculum Tests, this study found that low-achieving students had lower self-esteem than high achieving pupils, while before the tests were introduced there was no correlation measured between self-esteem and achievement. None at all. 

In one state in Australia, the number of Year 12 students seeking special conditions to complete exams due to anxiety rose by one third in 2016.

Why assessment needs a serious makeover

1. Assessment doesn't fairly or accurately represent the student's knowledge

​Designing a high-stakes exam that only tests a student's ability to sit still and regurgitate information on demand in a limited time frame and under strict conditions is not fair to the majority of students. Why? Because only a small percentage of students thrive and perform well under these specifications. Even if they know the content, the high pressure environment can often make their brains perform sub-optimally.

2. The current testing model invites cramming as a valid method of preparation

Because of the​ unrealistic time restraints and the amount of content students are tested on in one exam, the phenomenon of 'cramming' occurs. Students rote learn in an attempt to force so much information through their brains, that they can't possibly retain it all, or even a large majority of it.

Cramming the night before an exam may work for short-term recall, but the information will be gone soon after leaving the exam hall. You may have got an A+ in your senior Politics exam, but how much of your answers can you remember now? I thought so! 😉

So demonstrates my point, that testing in these environments isn't an accurate picture of what many students know.

3. Exams, reports and learning are presented as inseparable

It's no wonder students (especially young ones) get confused when we talk about learning being fun. To them, learning is doing what the teacher says, trying to memorise it (the more tricks and gimmicks used to coax a child to memorise something, the more sure you can be that it's completely irrelevant for them) and being tested on it in high-pressure, anxiety-inducing exams. They walk out beating themselves up for not answering everything in time, and get hit with a low grade (and little or no debrief) a month later.

And because exams turn into report cards that are held up as the pinnacle of schooling and a 'good education', it's something that is intrinsic to the social perception of school. And this leads us back to the views students hold of themselves as learners.

Girl sitting alone studying

4. Currently, test scores carry way too much weight in determining identity and self-worth (for already impressionable students)

Picture this. Jenny receives a C grade for her Maths test and instantly feels disappointed and a little stupid. It doesn't help that her peers joke about test results and tell her that only dumb people get Cs. 

I wish I could pull Jenny aside and tell her that the exam was ONE very flawed measure of what she knows. I bet if we sat down and chatted over a coffee, or she recorded a podcast discussing the main issues, or wrote a screenplay or... (anything else!) Jenny could show more of what she knows and more importantly, what she thinks about what she knows.

Bottom line, Jenny. The teachers, parents and students themselves may hype it up, but a test score doesn't define you. Not in the least.

5. Teachers mostly teach in the way the tests are conducted

Instructional teaching from the front of the room is still the way most teachers convey lessons most of the time. In doing so they customise their delivery to suit only a small percentage of students. Here's a quote from the same study that analysed low-self esteem correlations after the National Curriculum Tests were introduced in England.

"When passing tests is high stakes, teachers adopt a teaching style which emphasised transmission teaching of knowledge, thereby favouring those students who prefer to learn in this way and disadvantaging and lowering the self-esteem of those who prefer more active and creative learning experiences." 

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by it's
ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing
it is stupid."

Albert Einstein

It comes down to this.

The institution of school, in its current form, is destroying children's love of learning, and ultimately, their true sense of self as learners.

And it's something millions of people care about and want to see reform in, if the views on this Ken Robinson TED talk and Boyinaband YouTube video are anything to go by. (All kinds of influential people care about this. Sir Ken Robinson is an international author, and Boyinaband is a British rapper and YouTuber.)

As the late educational author and educator John Holt said:

“We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty and contemptible rewards, gold stars, or papers marked 100 and tacked to the wall, or A's on report cards, or honor rolls, or dean's lists, or Phi Beta Kappa keys, in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.”

Are you okay with that, honestly?

Are you okay with looking the other way, and letting this slide?

We send our children to school for roughly a fifth of their life, during their most impressionable, foundational years. School gets to shape a huge part of their future adult selves. Are we really happy with the way the institution of school (whether intentionally or unintentionally) is teaching them to think - about the world, about learning and, most critically, about themselves?

At The Mulberry Journal, we are big proponents of home education and alternative forms of schooling. But this is only a small part of the answer. School reform is absolutely vital as well, and it's something we want to get behind and start writing about more often.

If you'd like to contribute on this topic, or have information you think would be of interest, please email me: editor@mulberrymagazine.com.au​

* We want to see significant change, so if you liked this article, please share with your friends and family. And I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

If you liked this, you may like - Retired teacher: 'We're doing this all wrong'

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School reform: why the education system is broken and how we can fix it
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Grace Koelma

Editor

Grace is the Editor of The Mulberry Journal and when she's not reading submissions, divides her time between hanging out with her simultaneously delightful and headstrong 2-year-old, running multiple ventures, writing and travelling full time with her little family. You can follow her travels at @darelist.family.

5 unconventional ideas about relationships with teens

Unschooling author and mother, Pam Laricchia, explores the ways we can support our teens and help them write a different story—their own story. Not a shadow of ours.

teenage girls

By Pam Laricchia | livingjoyfully.ca

One of the biggest fears I see mentioned over and over by parents is that their teens will make the same mistakes they did growing up. Parents of teens have, at this point in their lives, gained a certain perspective and feel pretty confident about the thread of actions and consequences that wove through their own teen years.

The dreaded 'If Only'

Even beyond that, many imagine that if they could go back and do it all again knowing what they know now, they’d do a better job of it. Mired in what they see as the perfect vision of hindsight, their mind starts each flashback with “if only …” “If only I’d hung out with a different crowd, I would have made better connections.” “If only I hadn’t wasted my time, I could have made more money at my job.” “If only I had studied harder, I could have gotten into a better college.”

These are simplistic appraisals, but given what they see as a second chance, parents are confident they can engineer a better outcome for their teen, “if only they would listen to me.” (There it is again!)

woman thinking silhouette

While I am suggesting that we as parents try to avoid projecting our personal experiences too deeply onto our teens, I don’t mean to imply that we keep our thoughts to ourselves and leave them to figure out the world on their own. Far from it!

Parents have experience and wisdom to share that can be very helpful. Yet, to be truly helpful, it’s important that our teens receive it in the “no strings attached” spirit we intend, or else our motivation is suspect and the information understandably discounted. So the atmosphere of communication is important—the relationship.

Hands off or helicopter parenting

Conventionally, relationships with teens are painted as either/or: either you focus on maintaining authority (tough love) or you avoid challenges altogether (let them run wild).

Unschooling families have found the beauty of living inside the spectrum of those extremes. We continue to cultivate the strong and connected relationships we have built with our children over the years—it’s a relationship paradigm that serves us well no matter our children’s age.

Let’s look at some of the ways unschooling parents view relationships differently and what that can look like in the teen years. Notice how they all boil down to how we relate to them: as people, not possessions.

We drop the expectations

Unschoolers don’t share their experiences or perspective with the expectation that their teens will reach the same conclusions. That’s hard, isn’t it? We know what we know! To us—for us—our experiences are fact.

For me, it’s a kind of philosophical detachment. Not a detachment as in disengagement, but in appreciation of their individuality. Almost paradoxically, when I’m not living my life through them, I feel even closer to them, because it’s not about me—their life is theirs to live—so I can detach from the outcome and drop my expectations.

They are not younger versions of me, but unique beings in their own right. So though the experiences I share may be helpful to them, useful pieces to the puzzle of their life, I don’t expect my stories to mean the same things to them: we are each building different puzzles.

teenage boy tree

We realise that the circumstances of their lives are different than ours

Speaking of different puzzles, take a moment to consider just how different their childhood has been from our own. The pace of change has been accelerating at breakneck speed over our lifetimes.

This is a new thing! Comparatively, the pace of change from one generation to the next even just a few decades ago was almost negligible. What an exciting time in human history to be living! But it also means that the passing down of generational experience is more about bigger picture human issues, like empathy and morality, than any day-to-day advice to “do this and get that outcome”. The nuts and bolts of our stories are often no longer applicable because the world is changing so rapidly.

For example, even mainstream society is starting to question the typical counsel to “go to college and get a good job at a big company.” That was the conventional definition of success in the industrial age, and even deeply into the information age, but we are swiftly moving beyond that now. That advice, so adamantly passed on to us by our parents, has become hopelessly out-of-date as our teens move into the adult world.

teenagers on jetty

We don’t presume we know better than they how they experience their lives

This can be a hard one, too. We have more life experience. We remember a time when they were young children and totally dependent on us and we came through for them—here they are!

Yet we can also acknowledge that we don’t always know what they are thinking and feeling, how they are experiencing and interpreting the day-to-day moments of their lives. Sure, maybe we really enjoyed camping at the lake as a family over the last long weekend, but that doesn’t mean they did. And they are not “wrong” to have disliked it. Different personalities and outlooks are just that: different, not wrong.

As I said, none of this is intended to suggest disengagement—that we don’t share our experiences, or that we leave them alone to figure out their own lives. What I hope people get out of this discussion is the inspiration to listen to teens: they have intelligent information and insights about their own lives to share!

Don’t discount what they say just because it’s different from your thoughts and perspective. Again, it’s different, not wrong. Instead, if you try to connect what they’re saying with what you already know, you just might create a bigger picture of the world for yourself. You’re learning too. Which leads to …

We don’t assume that, as parents, we’re always right

This seems to be at the crux of so much parent-teen conflict. At some point, teens are ready for more responsibility, more independence, more freedom. So often parents are determined to keep them in that conventional childhood box as long as possible, the box where parents are 'right' and their children need to do what they’re told.

With this new perspective—that their childhood environment is radically different than ours, that they are experiencing life in their own unique ways, and that our expectations are entangled with our life experiences—it is presumptuous of us to believe that our worldview will fit neatly into their lives. What was right for us (or what we imagine would have been right for us), may not be right for them.

teenage girls talking

Which leads us back to where we started:

Teens are people, too

Just because they are our children, they are not our possessions. They are people. And just because they are our progeny, doesn’t mean we intimately understand them. We need to get to know them. And be open so that they get to know us. Build lasting relationships. And from there we have lasting impact on each others’ lives. My kids have inspired me countless times! I have learned things from them that have made me a better person. We continue to learn from each other.

From childhood, through the teen years, and beyond, everyone wins with strong, connected, respectful relationships.

This post was originally featured on livingjoyfully.ca and has been republished here with permission.

Which part of this article resonated with you? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Pam Laricchia

Pam Laricchia

Contributor

Pam Laricchia is a Canadian unschooling author, speaker and podcaster. She started unschooling her three children in 2002, and now her three young adults are exploring the world in their own unique ways. Her website, livingjoyfully.ca is a treasure trove of resources for families who are travelling an unschooling journey.