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independent learning

from Wired .com

The Techies Who Are Hacking Education
by Homeschooling Their Kids

Chris and Samantha Matalone Cook are homeschooling their sons Simon and Parker. (Their daughter Lucy asked to attend private school for the time being.)

A couple of weeks ago, I wandered into the hills north of the UC Berkeley campus and showed up at the door of a shambling Tudor that was filled with lumber and construction equipment. Samantha Matalone Cook, a work-at-home mom in flowing black pants and a nose ring, showed me around. Cook and her family had moved into the house in April and were in the middle of an ambitious renovation. “Sorry,” Cook said, “I didn’t tell you we were in a construction zone.” A construction zone, it turns out, that doubles as a classroom.

We walked into the living room where Cook’s two sons, Parker and Simon, were sitting on the couch, silently scribbling. The boys, aged 12 and 10, had the air of young Zuckerbergs-in-training. Babyfaced and freshly scrubbed, they spoke with a somewhat awkward and adenoidal lilt and wore sweatshirts with the hoods flipped up and no shoes. The room around them was chaos—piles of art supplies were stacked around the floor and paint samples were smeared next to the doorways. The family’s two dogs, Dakota and Kaylee, wrestled loudly over a chew toy. The sound of pounding construction equipment drifted in from the basement. And yet the boys were focused on what I soon learned were math workbooks—prealgebra for Parker, a collection of monster-themed word problems for Simon.

The Cook boys are homeschooled, have been ever since their parents opted not to put them in kindergarten. Samantha’s husband Chris never liked school himself; as a boy, he preferred fiddling on his dad’s IBM PC to sitting in a classroom. After three attempts at college, he found himself unable to care about required classes like organic chemistry and dropped out to pursue a career in computers. It paid off; today he is the lead systems administrator at Pandora. Samantha is similarly independent-minded—she blogs about feminism, parenting, art technology, and education reform and has started a network of hackerspaces for kids. So when it came time to educate their own children, they weren’t in any hurry to slot them into a traditional school.

“The world is changing. It’s looking for people who are creative and entrepreneurial, and that’s not going to happen in a system that tells kids what to do all day,” Samantha says. “So how do you do that? Well if the system won’t allow it, as the saying goes: If you want something done right, do it yourself.”

Teach Different

“Do It Yourself” is a familiar credo in the tech industry—think of the hobbyists of the Homebrew Computing Club hacking together the personal computer, Mark Zuckerberg building the next great communications medium from his Harvard dorm room, or Palmer Lucky soldering together the Oculus Rift from spare parts in his garage. Progressive education is another leitmotif that runs through tech history—Larry Page and Sergey Brin have attributed much of their success to the fact that they attended a Montessori school. In recent years, Peter Thiel has launched a broadside against higher education, and Sir Ken Robinson’s lecture, “How Schools Kill Creativity,” has become the most popular TED Talk of all-time, with 31 million views. Now, all those strains are coming together to create a new phenomenon: the techie homeschooler.

This may come as a shock to those of us who still associate homeschooling with fundamentalists eager to shelter their kids from the evils of the secular state. But it turns out that homeschooling has grown more mainstream over the last few years. According to the most recent statistics, the share of school-age kids who were homeschooled doubled between 1999 and 2012, from 1.7 to 3.4 percent.


And many of those new homeschoolers come from the tech community. When homeschooling expert Diane Flynn Keith held a sold-out workshop in Redwood City, California, last month, fully half of the parents worked in the tech industry. Jens Peter de Pedro, an app designer in Brooklyn, says that five of the 10 fathers in his homeschooling group work in tech, as do two of the eight mothers. And Samantha Cook says that her local hackerspace is often filled with tech-savvy homeschoolers.“There is a way of thinking within the tech and startup community where you look at the world and go, ‘Is the way we do things now really the best way to do it?’” de Pedro says. “If you look at schools with this mentality, really the only possible conclusion is ‘Heck, I could do this better myself out of my garage!’”

Lisa Betts-LaCroix personifies this attitude pretty well. She is no stranger to the various obsessions of the tech world—she leads the Silicon Valley chapter of Quantified Self, the personal tracking movement; her husband Joe has helmed a variety of computer and biotech startups. She has homeschooled her kids for the last nine years (though she prefers the term “independent learning”). When she started, it was seen as unusual. Now, she says, there are more than 500 families in her homeschooling group—a growing number of them tech entrepreneurs like her husband. She sees it as the latest expression of the industry’s push toward disintermediation. “We are going direct to learning,” she says. “We don’t need to hold to this old paradigm of top-down, someone tells me what to do.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that the tech community—a group not known for mastering the delicate social mores of adolescence—might pursue an unconventional approach to schooling. “I never really fit in,” says Flickr and Hunch co-founder Caterina Fake, who has homeschooled three kids (two of whom have since moved on to public school) along with her partner, serial entrepreneur Jyri Engestrom. “I grew up not watching any TV, excluded from pop culture, sitting around reading T.S. Eliot and playing classical music. But those things benefited me so much! I felt different in a good way—like I had secret superpowers.”

A World Apart

Feel free to roll your eyes at this point. There’s something inherently maddening about a privileged group of forward-thinkers removing their children from the social structures that have defined American childhood for more than a century under the presumption that they know better. (And if you want to see how antiauthoritarian distrust can combine malevolently with parental concern, look no further than the Disneyland measles outbreak caused by the anti-vaccine crowd.) I hear you. As a proud recipient of a great public school education, I harbor the same misgivings.

And yet, as I talked to more of these homeschoolers, I found it harder to dismiss what they were saying. My son is in kindergarten, and I fear that his natural curiosity won’t withstand 12 years of standardized tests, underfunded and overcrowded classrooms, and constant performance anxiety. The Internet has already overturned the way we connect with friends, meet potential paramours, buy and sell products, produce and consume media, and manufacture and deliver goods. Every one of those processes has become more intimate, more personal, and more meaningful. Maybe education can work the same way.

“It used to be you had to go to a special institution to get information about a subject, but we live in the technology age and you can find anything you need on your phone,” says Jeremy Stuart, a documentary filmmaker, who, along with Dustin Woodard made a movie about homeschooling called Class Dismissed . “The whole paradigm has shifted. It’s no longer about how to access information, it’s about how to use the information, how to sift through it to determine how to apply it to your life. That’s incredibly empowering, and schools are not doing that.”

“The Internet does a great job of providing access to learning,” says Albert Wenger, a partner at New York’s Union Square Ventures. He and his wife Sue Danziger, the founder of online video startup Ziggeo, are having their three children homeschooled. “Pretty much everything you want to learn, you’ll be able to find out there. So that puts a premium on, Is this something you care about? Is this something you want to learn?”

Parker and Simon Cook.

In Session

If you’re a parent who wants to homeschool your kids, there are a bunch of resources at your disposal. You can buy workbooks and textbooks. Many museums have special programs for homeschoolers. (San Francisco’s Exploratorium, for instance, leads science workshops; Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts offers an “artful adventures” program; and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History hosts classes for homeschool groups.) You can join a group of local homeschoolers and share ideas and projects. You can download a curriculum from a website like Teachers Pay Teachers, or cadge a syllabus from MIT or Stanford. Or you can access online tutorials from places like Codecademy or Khan Academy.

But at 11:30, after her kids are done with their workbooks, Samantha Cook is trying something new. Last week, she asked them to come up with an idea for a new business, and now she wants them to write a more formal plan. First, she asks them to write down their idea. Immediately, Parker starts whining.

“I need another piece of paper,” he says.

“Just write it on the back of that one,” Samantha urges.

“Does Simon have to use proper grammar?”

“You both have to use proper grammar.”

“Does that mean Simon can’t use all caps?”

“Don’t focus on Simon, focus on your own work.”

At this point, Simon interjects: “How do you spell restaurant?”

“Ooh, I like it!” Samantha says. “What kind?”

“Hmmm,” Simon says.

Parker hands her his piece of paper, on which he has written “Real Live Pokemon.”

“OK,” Samantha says, “and then maybe a brief description, one sentence of what the experience would be.”

Simon, meanwhile, has written “Mexican.”

Samantha: I’ll be your first customer! OK, one sentence: What makes your Mexican restaurant different from any other? Is it going to be vegan? Are you going to fuse it with another kind of food? Is it the atmosphere?

Parker: How do you spell genetically?

Samantha: I want you to try first.

Simon: Wait, are you going to…?

Samantha: He’s going to make genetically modified Pokemon, I think.

Simon: I’m thinking my restaurant will have…. Karaoke.

After a few minutes, Parker hands his paper back to his mother. It reads “Genetically enhanced frogs that we turn into Pokemon.”

“OK,” Samantha replies matter-of-factly. “I want you to list the resources you’re going to need. You’re going to need a lab.”

Simon interrupts. “Did I spell that right?”

Samantha: There’s an extra E at the end of ‘employees,’ but otherwise yes, OK. Is there anything else that you think you’re going to need?

Simon: Tables and chairs?

Samantha: Yep!

Simon: I’ll just write ‘furniture.’

I sneak a peek at Parker’s paper. It reads “a lab, a fission reactor.”

Samantha says, “Next you’re going to have to think about whether you’re going to need any government grants.”

“Well, a fission reactor is going to cost quite a lot,” Parker says, stroking his chin.

“Yes, it is,” Samantha responds. She turns to Simon. “Is there anything else, or is this like what you feel you need to start?”

Simon: Yes.

Samantha: OK, so next to the things you feel you need to start, go ahead and estimate what you think they will cost.

Simon: For the furniture, I think that would cost, about—

Samantha: Let’s go with Ikea grade.

Simon: How much are round tables and chairs?

Samantha: I saw a set of table and four chairs for $120 for one set.

Simon: And we would need about three or four of them.

Samantha: Mm hmm. So if it’s $120 each, let’s overestimate and say we want five sets.

Simon: OK

Samantha: So for five sets, that would equal what? Five times 120?

Simon: I’m thinking.

Parker: How do you spell centrifuge?

Simon: Parker, what are you doing?!

Samantha: Try. You did well on the other.

Parker: But I knew how to spell fission reactor!

Samantha: Break it into parts.

Parker: [looking at his paper, holding his head in his hands] That’s not how you spell centrifuge!

Samantha: Let me see. How would you find out if I wasn’t sitting here?

Parker: I would ask Siri, How do you spell centrifuge? (He picks up his iPhone and shouts into it) SIRI, HOW DO YOU SPELL CENTRIFUGE?

Samantha (to Simon): So, for the building, will you just rent space?

Parker: I spelled it correctly!

Samantha: See? Do you feel validated?

Parker (shouting into his phone): THANK YOU, SIRI!

An Individualized Solution to a Social Need

The Cook family are not just homeschoolers but unschoolers. They don’t prefer homeschooling simply because they find most schools too test-obsessed or underfunded or otherwise ineffective. They believe that the very philosophical underpinnings of modern education are flawed. Unschoolers believe that children are natural learners; with a little support, they will explore and experiment and learn about the world in a way that is appropriate to their abilities and interests. Problems arise, the thinking goes, when kids are pushed into an educational model that treats everyone the same—gives them the same lessons and homework, sets the same expectations, and covers the same subjects. The solution, then, is to come up with exercises and activities that will help each kid flesh out the themes and subjects to which they are naturally drawn.


All of which sounds great. But, to put this in tech terms, it’s an approach that doesn’t scale very well. It seemed exhausting enough for Samantha to help her two sons write one-sentence business plans; it’s hard to imagine anyone offering the same kind of energy and attention to each student in a 20-person classroom. Indeed, that’s precisely why schools adopt a one-size-fits-all model. Unlike the Cooks, they don’t have the luxury of tailoring an entire lesson plan to the needs and proclivities of one or two students. They have to balance the needs of individual students against the needs of the class as a whole—including kids who come into school with different interests, skills, and abilities. That’s why so many teachers aim for the middle of the bell curve—hoping to have the maximum impact on the largest number of students, even as they risk losing the outliers on either end of the chart.Of course, there are plenty of private schools, charters, or gifted programs pursuing some version of what’s called student-directed learning. But most unschoolers told me that even these schools were still too focused on traditional standards of achievement. (To be fair, it’s hard to imagine that even the most enlightened private school would be able to stay in business if it couldn’t demonstrate to parents that it was teaching their children how to read or add.) Unless every family homeschools their children—a prospect that even homeschooling advocates say is untenable—it will remain an individualized solution to a social need.

And this is where technologists see a great opportunity—to provide differentiated, individualized education in a classroom setting. There’s a lot of excitement around Khan Academy because it steps in to handle a teacher’s least personalized duties—delivering lectures, administering and grading quizzes—freeing up time for one-on-one tutoring. Last year, Khan Academy launched the Khan Lab School, an offshoot that will create “a working model of Khan Academy’s philosophy of learning in a physical school environment.” AltSchool, a startup created by a former Googler, has launched a series of “micro-schools” in which teachers help students create their own individualized lesson plans.

Jyri Engestrom, Caterina Fake’s partner, signed up with AltSchool this year. The couple had been homeschooling for a couple of years, an experiment that gradually expanded into a 10-student “microschool” called Sesat School. This year, his students started attending AltSchool part-time, in what he calls a “hybrid” approach. He says it’s just one example of how a new crop of startups could use technology to create new educational models, somewhere between homeschooling and traditional school. He foresees a day when the same forces that have upended everything from the entertainment industry to transportation wreak havoc on our current model of education, when you can hire a teacher by the hour, just as you would hire a TaskRabbit to assemble your Ikea furniture.

“I’m feeling like something is brewing right now,” Engestrom says. “The cost of starting a company has gone down because there are online tools you can use for free. I can see that happening with school. So much of that stuff is just up for grabs.”