All posts by Mark

Visualizing The Invisible: Wind Map

Windmap at, Hacker News and Mashable linked to a new site with a hypnotic and beautiful visualization of the current wind conditions over the continental US, called appropriately Windmap.

It’s the creation of a pair of Google engineers. And it’s great example of how incomprehensibly huge databases of information can be displayed in a way that is as compelling as it is informative.

The first couple times I tried to check it out, it was apparently swamped from all the attention it got in the past day–it wouldn’t load. Keep trying, it’s worth it.

Some Advice For A Beginning Unschooler

Mark and Nathan ReadingMy friend and fellow blogger Tony Fuentes asked me a couple questions in the comments that I felt needed a bit more room to answer.

Are there any resources you would recommend to a total newbie at unschooling? Also, is there a “technique” to unschooling your kids? Or is it more of a self-taught thing on the part of the parents?

Let’s start with a couple terms. “Homeschooling,” is the term used by most of society to describe what you’re considering. It involves you and your child complying with whatever ordinances your municipality has set for excusing children from the standard compulsory education proscribed across the country. It is a legal matter. And it is not trivial in most places, it requires meeting requirements and submitting forms, seeking approval from school boards and possibly other government agencies. This varies according to your state and even your individual school system.

Within the community of people who have chosen to do this, however, there is a spectrum between better-schooling-at-home (described typically with that same term “homeschooler”), and natural learning (usually called “unschooling”). Homeschoolers use a conscious and purposely-chosen curriculum. Unschoolers use a curriculum that emerges organically from their child’s interests, personality, and learning styles. The spectrum mainly involves the balance of parent-led vs. child-led curriculum.

Where on that spectrum you feel most comfortable is something you will have to decide, probably many times, over the course of raising your children. Some unschoolers like to prefix themselves with “radical” and that just means that they are not just “inspired” by the concepts of natural learning, they are fully committed to the sometimes scary prospect of letting their kids learning nature express itself organically, and in it’s own time.

No matter what style you end up with, homeschooling and unschooling each involve dedicating your life, over the course of your children’s childhood, to education. Theirs of course, but also your own.

The best estimates I could find for recent times in the US are that about two million kids in the US are homeschooled. It has been doubling every ten years or so. It has quadrupled since my wife and I started in the mid nineties. Some of us who started back then are still battle-scarred from the repeated scorn of peoples’ reactions that we were “damaging” our kids. You’ll find a considerably more tolerant atmosphere now, but it is important that you realize you are choosing to be a very small minority. A minority many people still think they have an obligation to set straight.

If two million kids are home schooled, then these represent about three percent of all kids in the US. Estimates vary but roughly one third of homeschoolers consider themselves unschoolers. So you are electing to be in a class that represents only one percent of the US population. Radical unschoolers might be half that.

So unschooling is the fringe of the fringe, and you’ll need to explain yourself, and defend yourself, to not just well-meaning people in every sphere of life where people inquire about your kids (which is every sphere) but also to other people who educate their kids at home. This is why self-educating yourself about the benefits and arguments for and against is usually a good place to start. Unschooling can get lonely unless you take measures to connect to others who can lend you support and encouragement.

I believe your oldest child (or only child) is still very young. There is time. My advice to you is to start with reading some of the seminal thinkers in the “movement.” John Holt has a number of books to choose from, I’d recommend starting with “How Children Learn.” You might be able to get it at the library, although buying has the advantage that you can underline and write your notes in the margins!

My favorite author and thinker–on both the ills of government schooling and the benefits of home education–is John Taylor Gatto. I suppose I would recommend starting with “Weapons of Mass Instruction.”

Understand intellectually what your heart and gut are telling you right now about unschooling. Take turns reading these and other books, and discussing them, with your wife because this is something that the two of you are going to do together and it is an enterprise on the order of starting a business together. You will want to be on the same page and similarly committed. You will be each other’s essential core support.

Begin your adventure by teaching yourselves why and how unchooling is the best way available to you to achieve the following in raising your children:
[custom_list type=”check”]

  • Healthy body.
  • Positive attitude.
  • Considerate and attractive personality.
  • Independent and inquisitive mind.
  • Vivid and creative imagination.
  • Sound and responsible character.
  • Warm and open heart.
  • Whole psyche.
  • Beautiful soul.


Then I’d recommend trying to find a homeschooling group, and if possible an unschooling group near you. You’ll need guidance on meeting the legal guidelines in your municipality. It is possible you might have to move to a community more amenable to your efforts. It’s possible you might have to start your own unschooling group.

And of course, online communities can be very helpful. Back when I started, Sandra Dodd was one of the only people out there and she has been a solid voice of leadership ever since. I looked for a couple hours and she was still the best I could find. Many talented thinkers and fellow unschoolers are accessible through her site, as those she worked with and mentored have matured into leaders in their on right.

The National Home Education Network looks like it has some good articles. And Enjoy Life Unschooling has a pretty good roundup of resources too. I read Penelope Trunk’s Homeschooling Blog regularly and comment pretty often. She’s often controversial but always interesting, and her blog gives one view into the life of a person struggling through the first steps of finding her way unschooling. Many of her commenters are great to read as well. I’d also recommend checking out the sites of some of the people who’ve commented here. Seeing the way ordinary people work out the details of unschooling can be more informative than reading scholarly articles.

You could check out Forging Soul too, where I try my best to help adults who may not have had the luxury of being unschooled, work on that same checklist of personal development that I listed above. When all else fails, e-mail me :)

Edit: Commenter Michele reminded me about Joyce Fetteroll’s excellent site Joyfully Rejoicing. Well worth a visit, and thanks Michele!

Good For Nothing

Photo of stream and forest in Olmsted Falls, Ohio
School's Open.

The Quebec History Encyclopedia includes a retelling of a story from Benjamin Franklin’s Essays that sums up the impression the schools of 1744 in Virginia left on the elders of the people of the Six Nations.

Several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the northern provinces, they were instructed in all your sciences, but when they came back to us they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were, therefore, neither fit for hunters, warriors, or counselors; they were totally good for nothing.

Some things are timeless.

Please check out the original linked above, it is well worth the read.

Commonplace Practical Infinity

This article, 52 Factorial, has to be the most creative explanation of immense numbers that I have ever seen. The number of possible combinations of cards in a typical 52 card deck is:


And you would think that is unimaginably large. But amazingly, this article gives you a way to visualize it.

So what number is unimaginably large? The odds against every moment of your life being at all, let alone being what it was.

Timespan Visualization

A new tool called ChronoZoom provides a glimpse into coming advancements in educational technology–just as applicable for trained scientists as for students. Looking at it today, I felt a little how I felt the first time I saw wikipedia.

It overlays timelines from the big bang through the evolution of life, right up through recent history. Besides a zooming feature that gives an amazing sense of the scales of time for each timeline in comparison to one another, there are also links to videos discussing particular periods and thresholds.

From the about page:

ChronoZoom is an open source community project dedicated to visualizing the history of everything to bridge the gap between the humanities and sciences using the story of Big History to easily understand all this information. This project has been funded and supported by Microsoft Research Connections in collaboration with University California at Berkeley and Moscow State University.


On Socialization

Shark Tank Photo by Derek Key on Flikr (click for link to original)My last post got a whole lot more attention than I expected, so here is another comment I left at Penelope’s blog last month:

Over the years, a few people have had the patience to explain to me what exactly it is they mean by socialization, when they say that homeschooling does not provide an adequate amount.

Apparently, the socialization school is uniquely qualified to provide involves learning to handle people being mean to you, being rude or cruel to you, possibly even being violent toward you. It’s about toughening you up so you can withstand “real life” which, they tell me, is this way.

I’m told the commandment that one needs to operate effectively in this world is “do unto others, as the opportunity arises.”

I have to agree, school is quite effective at teaching that. Not so much because of the teachers but because of the kids descending culturally en masse to the lowest common denominator.

And I concede, homeschooling does tend to sorely lack this kind of soul-toughening.

Brought up mainly by their own parents, rather than designated strangers, children will tend to be treated with respect, patience, consideration, even love. As a result, a child does tend to retain the naive concept–that they get from who knows where–that it is generally best to treat people as you would have them treat you. They will expect people to be reasonable and mature, by and large. They will likely have learned that acting this way is how people get along in the world with a minimum of fuss.

Is such a child, once exposed to the real world, destined to be devoured by it? This is where we may differ.

To the extent these arguments have any merit, the world is a rough place largely because of the ways we desensitize and systematically de-humanize kids. The solution is not more de-humanization, no matter what we call it.

Kids can be taught the dangers associated with the sharks of the human world without them having to be thrown into an actual shark tank.

Five Basics Of Unschooling

Stakes supporting young plants. Image by on

Today on Penelope’s homeschooling blog, Penelope Trunk and a commenter who I know from comments at Forging Soul, Jennifer, were discussing the struggles they face with unschooling. I commented twice on that thread actually, first here, then I could not resist posting the second one–check it out if you want to take a look at the discussion.

This comment summarizes probably just about every point I have made on the topic (in other comments) over the past few months:


Jennifer, and Penelope, I see this struggle a lot in parents who are unschooling young kids. Maybe it’s universal.

Unschooling is more than the negation of a wrong–more than the usual definition we all start with as simply “not schooling.”

It is doing something right: creating a better alternative educational process. And you’re still figuring out exactly how–which is natural.

There are things I have come to believe as an unschooling parent that I must do right to fulfill my responsibilities, and to achieve the goals that motivated me to unschool in the first place. This has helped me be confident in myself as an unschooler. Here are five suggestions:

1. Support the natural learning process. Give your child room to discover the threads of interest and follow them to their passions. Create an environment of trust by being honest about the demands of life, as well as the joys. Treat your child as a human being, worthy of respect and dignity. Give them freedom to discover the world and understand themselves–in their own way.

2. Be mindful of your child’s development, and be ready to offer guidance. Make yourself available as a resource your child can draw upon as needed for help measuring progress, setting goals, making realistic plans, managing themselves, and dealing with others. These are life-lessons that you’re uniquely qualified and positioned to help with.

3. Provide materials and opportunities: Books, recordings, equipment, opportunities to see more of the world and meet people with shared interests from whom they can learn. Don’t just answer requests; offer! If it’s not immediately apparent to them why you’re offering, don’t be afraid to sell it a little. Your child’s job is to churn through what you give them along with what they find on their own. Your job is to make sure they always have new things to churn through.

4. Be involved. Children crave parental recognition, encouragement, and approval. This does not mean spending every moment with the kids or smothering them. It means taking an interest in what they are learning because they are learning it. It also means sharing your interests with them. If you try, but cannot bring yourself to endure a subject your kids have passion for, you have a responsibility to find someone who can–or hire someone who will.

5. Finally, don’t be an un-parent. As much as children need an education, they need parents more. This means cultivating a relationship where they return the trust you give them. As unschooled children, they enjoy immense freedom, but not unlimited. If you say that great literature is great, and it’s worth the learning curve, they should have long experience that you tend to be right about these things. If you say a certain amount of math will be needed in life, they will trust you as an authority on what life is all about, because of your obviously greater experience. Sometimes you have to work through the difficult part of learning to get to the more rewarding part. That is an important thing to learn. The best time for your child to discover he needed to know how to swim is not the first time he finds himself in way over his head.

Unschooling is natural, but it properly has a certain rigor, like farming or birthing or breastfeeding. It takes time to build the skills and then to build your confidence in them. Give yourself that time.

As far as I can tell the two of you are both on the right track!

The Medicalization Of Attitudes

Interesting article discussing mission creep in psychiatry.

Americans have been increasingly socialized to equate inattention, anger, anxiety, and immobilizing despair with a medical condition, and to seek medical treatment rather than political remedies. What better way to maintain the status quo than to view inattention, anger, anxiety, and depression as biochemical problems of those who are mentally ill rather than normal reactions to an increasingly authoritarian society.

NYT: Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime

This article from August 2011 in the NYT explains why digital device users need a boost in downtime more than anyone.

Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.

I’d go a little further and say you prevent a whole range of positive mental processes, including creativity and emotionally digesting the experiences you’ve soaked up during the day.