Self-Directed Life: Curriculum vs. the learner
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Hey guys,

How was your week?

Last week I wrote about the weird dichotomy that is our society’s current view of education as job training — we turn childhood into an unhealthy work environment in order to prepare kids to be high wage-earners in the future … but we expect an entirely different learner/worker as an adult than kids and teens are allowed to be in school.

I forgot to say this at the end:

We can do what’s best for kids (physically, mentally, emotionally, educationally) because it makes their lives better *or* because it creates better adult learners/creators/doers. Give your kids the education that can do both!

We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training. — Archilochus

There’s a lot of stress in homeschooling, and it tends to increase as you travel further away from how kids learn at school.

The stress comes from the inside (am I messing up my child’s chance to be successful in the world?) and the outside (your child being quizzed on their times tables at Thanksgiving by your sister-in-law).

When people say to me, “Don’t you worry…?” I respond, “Nope.”

So with all this stress, why am I so calm?

I have a completely different goal from professional educators.

Professional educators must focus on curriculum. The curriculum must match the learning standards (what the government says every child must learn during each year of his education). The curriculum must match the standardized tests, so the school and its staff won’t be punished for doing a bad job. As a result, we no longer do test prep — the curriculum IS test prep. It’s a nice, neat, closed system. We learn X because we test X.

Schools focus on curriculum — the delivery of knowledge and skills. (Supposedly, anyway.)

I do not focus on curriculum. I focus on helping my child be a great learner.

The only thing I worry about is whether or not my child is learning.

Is my child learning? Excellent. My job is simply to provide all of the elements necessary for that learning to be deep, far-ranging, and challenging. I provide space, materials, attention, support. I am a trusted resource: ask me for something, and I’m going to make a serious effort to follow through. I don’t get in the way; I don’t try to herd my child this way or that or stop him or speed him up. He sets the pace and the trajectory. I don’t tell him when I think he’s getting a little too ahead of himself; I let him show me what he can do.

I learn alongside him so I can not only be his mentor, I can allow him to mentor and support me. We are a community of learners and doers; we have a family culture that supports doing meaningful work.

I regularly ask myself where I can step back and let my child do more. I do this by looking at what I’m doing and asking myself why he’s not doing it instead. Why am I choosing resources? Why isn’t he doing that? Why am I planning our trip to the planetarium? Why isn’t he doing that? Why am I figuring out which materials fit into our budget? Why isn’t he in charge of the budget?

His growth is swift. I must constantly check to make sure I am not doing something for him that he could be doing for himself. I must remind myself to show him how to use the digital camera, which program I use to edit the photographs, and how to upload them and share them. It doesn’t matter whether he’s 4 or 6 or 10 — when he’s ready (or *almost* ready), he takes over.

Is my child NOT learning?

If I can detect no MOTIVATION to learn, that is where I apply myself. Why on earth would my child not be motivated to learn?

Is he interested in learning something and hiding it from me because he senses judgment or that I’m going to pounce and take over?

Does he have no interests? Is this humanly possible? Does he just lie all day in a darkened room converting oxygen to carbon dioxide?

Does he simply consume without ever creating anything? Why is that? Does he realize I’d be willing to invest in the tools and experiences he needs to create what he produces?

Here’s a question: If a child isn’t interested in learning, doesn’t like to learn, and says he has no interests and nothing he likes to do and nothing he cares about, can we cure that with curriculum?

If my child isn’t learning, I have to figure out where I blew it … or where my kid got a completely wrong idea about learning/himself … possibly from a peer, an adult, a “learning” experience that went awry … or maybe our life is arranged in a way that makes learning difficult or too costly. I have to examine my family’s goals and values and whether our daily choices are aligning with what we care about most. I have to start at the beginning and begin to rebuild.

But selecting curriculum (which I might do if I thought it was necessary) in no way addresses the problem of why my child isn’t pursuing learning on his own … why he doesn’t identify as a learner … why he isn’t digging into things he cares about. That is a different goal altogether — and one school almost never addresses.

I don’t have to do the difficult/impossible job of guessing at which curriculum will help my child have a successful career and a meaningful life — I just have to help my child connect with his interests and explore the world, figuring out what he is good at, what he cares about working hard at, and what makes life meaningful for him.

This isn’t a “one and done” approach — a happy-go-lucky four-year-old who’s building a cardboard train station isn’t set for life. Children aren’t generic “one is much like another” beings; each is going to have to carve his own unique path, dealing with his own unique boulders in the way. There’s never a point where we can say, “Well, that’s done and dusted!” We’re always looking, always listening, always finding places where things are interestingly difficult or stuck. Figuring these things out isn’t where life goes wrong; it’s where life happens.

Most adults concerned with children’s learning worry about what they’re doing today, this week, semester, this year, until the next standardized test or peer comparison event.

I don’t worry because my job is the same today as it will be tomorrow, next week, next year, and for the rest of my life. I’ll be the best companion and mentor I can be, and I’ll focus on what matters: whether or not he can learn whatever he needs to learn to do whatever he needs or wants to do.

So when the stress comes at you from the inside, focus on the learner, not the curriculum.

And when the stress comes at you from the outside, borrow this response I made to a well-meaning relative:

“He’s a great learner. If he needs or wants to learn it, he can and he knows he can. That’s all I worry about.”

When we fail to take charge of our education, we fail to take charge of our lives. The result is that we give away our power by letting others decide our fate.

…Learning is growth, and growth is a way of experiencing quality of life. — Charles Hayes

What happens when kids don’t spend their childhood and teen years learning about themselves (their signature strengths, their interests, what they care about and want to accomplish) and how to learn, make, and do whatever they want or need to? They often end up as adults who struggle for years (sometimes forever) to “find their passion,” shift from a career that doesn’t fulfill them, reconnect with what they love, discover what they can achieve. In Broken: How to Find Your Missing Peace, Katherine Wintsch says some things that resonate with what I wrote up above:

“You can be successful and unhappy at the same time.”

“My achievements always felt great on the surface, but they were always temporary and they were never enough.”

“I was putting my essential self aside and I was living my life through my social self — the part of me that learned to value what the people around me valued.”

Are you living life through your essential self?

Is your child?

One thing we accomplish when we help our kids get to know themselves NOW and respect and explore their interests and talents NOW is saving them a crap ton of time LATER as adults.


This post suggests you ask yourself two questions before accepting a new job — “What am I going to learn?” and “Are they going to use me for what I do best?” These are great questions to ask yourself when ANY new opportunity presents itself.


I’m beginning to see self-directed learning as self-care. We give ourselves the gift of allowing ourselves to love what we love … we invest in our interests and in ourselves as learners, makers, and doers … we give ourselves the same things we give our children: time, space, materials, support.

Here is a great article about what resilience really is (vs. the way grit is interpreted in school — buckle down and do the thing you don’t care about!). If we can truly develop this attitude about our OWN work as well as our children’s, imagine how much more we could accomplish … in a much healthier atmosphere:

“The misconception of resilience is often bred from an early age. Parents trying to teach their children resilience might celebrate a high school student staying up until 3AM to finish a science fair project.

What a distortion of resilience! A resilient child is a well-rested one.”

“The key to resilience is trying really hard, then stopping, recovering, and then trying again.” — Resilience is about how you recharge, not how you endure


We often talk about normalizing our big rocks — here’s an article that shows clearly what you do all the time is how your child defines normal.


If you’re still struggling to deal with that sister-in-law who quizzes your kids about their times tables or gives them impromptu spelling tests, Eric has some solid suggestions about how to be more assertive“When you’re being passive, you forget that you have a choice. But you always do.”


Here’s another book conflating learning with job training — How to Raise an Entrepreneur. Yeah, okay, speaking as an entrepreneur who started my first company at age 22, I’m very much for helping kids pursue their passions and consider working for themselves. I just wish we cared more about how passions make life better whether or not they’re connected to your paycheck.

This quote by the author (interview here) does resonate: 

“You might think every parent believes in their child, but no, I think every parent loves their child and wants their child to be happy.

But believing in them is quite different.”


Janet wrote a post called The antidote to the checklisted childhood: Raising self-directed learners that happens to say a bunch of really nice things about me ;__; but also has some great quotes from Julie Lythcott-Haims’s TED talk about how to raise successful kids without overparenting, including this one:

“Self-efficacy is built when one sees that one’s own actions lead to outcomes, not one’s parents’ actions on one’s behalf…

“[S]imply put, if our children are to develop self-efficacy, and they must, then they have to do a whole lot more of the thinking, planning, deciding, doing, hoping, coping, trial and error, dreaming and experiencing of life for themselves.”

and this one:

“[W]e should be less concerned with the specific set of colleges they might be able to apply to or might get into and far more concerned that they have the habits, the mindset, the skill set, the wellness, to be successful wherever they go.”

Can I hear an amen?


Finally, here’s a great response to last week’s newsletter. I read and respond to every email, so if you have something to share, hit reply and let me know!

“As a student, I never learned what *I* wanted to do, what work was meaningful to me, or what I really felt passionate about. And I was an academic success story, with the GPA, awards, societies, etc. to prove it. What did all that prepare me for? To flail around after graduation, to find a mind-numbing job that paid fairly well, to make a couple of trips back to school, and then to teach. I spent many years being uncomfortable deciding things for myself; just give me a formula to follow — I can do that!”

“To consider children as somehow less-than-whole people is such a waste, such a squandering. Every day, our choice of project-based learning is affirmed. Today? My 7yo, who is building a doll-sized bunkbed for her about-to-be 5yo sister’s birthday, measured, calculated, pinned, cut and began sewing (her first time on the machine) covers for the foam mattresses she made. She already built and painted the bed frame, with power tools and all. And the 4yo decided she wanted to make her own doll recently, and has completed the hand-stitching and stuffing of both legs so far. This afternoon the 4yo suggested we go on a bike ride through the woods, which led us to a spectacular sunset, and sightings of many bats and a couple of great-horned owls. The girls are quite the birders, too. I LOVE THIS LIFE.” — K.

Thank you as always for your continued support. If there’s anything you need, just hit reply on this email and let me know! Have a great week!

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