Fun Ways To Teach Your Kids Encryption

Here are 2 simple ways to introduce the idea of encryption to elementary school kids.

 

Ciphers

I had them try to decode the following code:

4 15 7

(with some prodding they eventually figured out it was a simple letter-number cipher spelling “dog”)

 

Mastermind

You might recognize this game from your own childhood.

 

 

You don’t need to buy it. You can play it with different color marbles, bingo chips, coins or almost any set of things lying around the house.

How to play:

    1. A codemaker constructs a hidden sequence of 4 different colored beads (out of a possible 6 colors).
    2. The codebreaker tries to guess the sequence by arranging 4 colors in order.
    3. The codemaker gives non-verbal feedback:

      a) Identifies how many of the colors used are correct
      b) Identifies how many beads are the right color AND in the right position

    4. Repeat until the code is cracked

      Enrichment questions:

      How can the game be made easier?
      How can the game be made harder?

      And if you have an older onlooker…how many possible codes can be created?

      And if you have an Excel fan in the vicinity, see how you can solve such problems using the hypergeometric distribution. (A Reddit thread targeting game designers)

A Slightly More Advanced Example: Using a “Mask”

Suppose a group of people are sitting around a table and you all want to know how much money everyone makes but of course nobody is willing to share their own salary.

Here’s a way to uncover the average pay at the table without anybody needing to disclose their pay.

Let’s pretend A, B, C, and D are having dinner together at this table.

Just follow these steps:

Masking Phase

  1. Tell “A” to add an arbitrary number to their pay and write the sum on a piece of paper. It’s very important to write just the sum! So if A makes $100k per year and the arbitrary number is 5,000,000 then they would write: $5,100,000

  2. Pass the paper to “B”

  3. “B” notes the sum and adds it to their own salary plus their own arbitrary number. They write this sum on a fresh piece of paper and hand it to “C”. Important: use a new piece of paper, we don’t want anyone to see the history of how the sum was created. 

    Example:

    “B” receives paper with the sum $5,100, 000
    “B” add this to their own salary $50,000 plus an arbitrary number of $1,000,000
    “B” passes a piece of paper with the total $6,150,000 to “D”

  4. Repeat this process until the paper gets back to “A” 

Un-masking Phase

  1. “A” subtracts their arbitrary number only from the total and passes the new total to “B”.

    Example :

    “A” receives a piece of paper with the number $9,000,000 written on it
    “A” subtracts the $1,000,000 arbitrary number and passes the number $8,000,000 to “B”

  2. Repeat until everyone has subtracted their arbitrary number.

The remaining total is the sum of everyone’s pay. If we divide by 4 (the number of people) we have discovered the average pay at the table and nobody needed to reveal their own number!

You have learned a simple way to “mask” data with arbitrary numbers!

Try it yourself. You don’t even need paper — just explain the rules to some friends in your texting group and find out if you are actually under or overpaid! Just don’t kill the messenger.

(The mask example was inspired by this Twitter thread by @theemilyaccount)

A Socratic Money Lesson For 2nd Graders

I’m sharing the money lesson I did with a pair of 2nd graders on my rotation day with the pod. No worksheets involved. I just used the Socratic method to ask questions and let them develop an understanding on their own.

The concepts:

  • hourly income
  • budgets

Techniques applied:

  • addition and multiplication
  • estimating
  • brainstorming

Materials needed:

  • Poker chips or play money
  • Pencil and paper (we actually used markers and small dry-erase boards)

Script

“Let’s suppose you make $25 per hour.

Pick something you want to buy so you have a savings goal.”

[In our example, they answered gumball machine, so I set the price at $1,000]

Question 1:  How long would it take you to save up for it?

What we are looking for in the answers:

    • How many hours it would take to save up $1,000?
    • How many hours you might work per week? (Expect bad estimates. I found myself asking them what time their parents go to and from work)
    • How the time it takes to save varies with how many hours a week you work.
    • Extend discussion to how much you would make in 1 year.

If you were a grown up you would need to pay for many things. These are known as necessities

Question 2:  Can you make a list of necessities?

What we are looking for in the answers:

We want them to identify categories. I had them create a list on their dry-erase boards. Here’s the ones we settled on:

      1. Food/Drink
      2. Shelter
      3. Transportation
      4. Clothes
      5. Utilities/Energy (including gas for the car)
      6. Hygiene(teeth, hair, soap)
      7. Entertainment/Fun
      8. Furniture/phone/computer (things you buy every few years…durable goods)
      9. Then savings!

Question 3: Create a monthly budget per category item.

What we are looking for in the answers:

In our lesson I had the kids estimate their monthly income and had them count out that much money worth of poker chips. You could use play money from Monopoly just as easily. I then had them estimate the amount of money they would need to spend on each category. They have now learned the concept of budget! Be ready to spend a lot of time here helping them walk through reasonable estimates. When one of the boys said $100 a month for food I explained that you could not even by 1 Happy Meal a day for that amount.

I had the kids stack of the appropriate amount of poker chips on each category.

It is interesting so see how much money the kids allocate to each category once reasonable ranges are established. These 2 boys had a big difference in their fun budgets!

Question 4: How long does it take to save up for that $1,000 gumball machine (or whatever they want to save for)?

What we are looking for in the answers:

Bound by the need to pay for necessities, the kids will discover that they can only make extra discretionary purchases if they amass enough savings. Compared to not having obligations, they should notice that it takes much longer to save up for that gumball machine.

Question 5: How can you get the gumball machine faster?

We want to establish the importance of this category. Adults understand it is a stock variable that changes with monthly flows. We want the kids to establish a link between savings and the things they want to buy. What can you do to save faster?

What we are looking for in the answers:

    1. Work more hours
    2. Spend less on budgeted items
    3. Earn more per hour

Going Further

This is where we stopped but next time this is my plan to continue.

Beyond Labor

This is where we will talk about creating a business. We had already started the discussion when the boys realized they could buy a gumball machine, stock it with candy, place it in Target and pay the machine off. Rinse and repeat. This got their little gears turning!

Here is some ideas I have for exploring:

Basic Accounting

  • Revenue
  • Fixed Costs
  • Variable Costs (COGs)
  • Profit

2 kinds of businesses: service and product

Service: Money-for-time businesses. For example a dentist or dogwalker or haircutter or coach. Earnings potential constrained by hours.

Product: Writing a book, or song (I want to talk about writing credit vs performing credit vs lyrics credit for songs. To make it fun I will look up some examples of a songs they like –Hamilton’s My Shot, Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road, or Bruno Mars’ Uptown Funk)

Brainstorming businesses

  •  Brain dump of business ideas
  • Labeling business examples as type 1 or type 2

Application: Lemonade Stand example

  • Working at a lemonade stand is hourly labor and similar to a service business.
  • Owning a lemonade stand is product business.

Demonstrating the difference in risk: the upside and downside of ownership

Contrast the p/l after an hour’s work at a lemonade stand for the worker vs the owner on a

      • Hot day [above expected revenue]
      • Cold day [below expected revenue]
      • An AQI 500 day where people stay indoors (hey these are CA kids!) [no revenue]

We Don’t Need No Education

I kinda hated school as a kid. Sunday nights were sad. Like funerals where the weekend was laid to rest.

Why did I hate school?

It was a tiresome place to be. The waking up early didn’t help. I discovered the snooze alarm at an early age. But that could have been overcome if the destination was fun. But it wasn’t. I was bored. That’s not an “I was too smart for school” flex. It’s just that I liked playing more. I think the only aspect of school that kept me sane is the fact that I’m a pleaser. I’m happiest when I get approval. Getting good grades was a way to do that, at least from adults.

As I got to high school, getting good grades was a path to a good college which was a path to a good job, which was a path to money. I didn’t think much beyond that (money or lack thereof was a source of baggage and well beyond the scope of this post). My scholastic life started with A’s as a path to approval and ended with a 4.0 as a path to money.

Education As A Byproduct

If I learned anything along the way it was an accidental outcome of trying to win the report card tournament. Inverting, good grades are a lossy way to measure learning. The correlation between getting good grades and learning is pretty hazy.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of what good grades actually indicate:

  • Horsepower that’s well-matched to school: Reading, spelling, and arithmetic are easier if your parents are good at them and you’re not dyslexic.
  • Obedience: Your homework makes it to the teacher’s desk without a dog eating it.
  • Competitiveness: You heard ranks were being assigned to humans so you paid attention.
  • Fear: You were afraid of short term pain (getting grounded) or long term pain (being broke).

And finally,

  • Some actual learning. You could use this “reading” thing to follow Nintendo Power‘s instructions to defeat Ganon. You finally found a use for English class.

Notice how good grades are driven by extrinsic motivation more than a desire to learn. That’s a shame because losing a desire to learn was not inevitable. We are built to learn. Not for any grand reasons necessarily. We don’t need to pretend we emerge from the womb with little monk minds ready to contemplate the mysteries of the world. Learning is just the tool by which we solve problems.

If you have ever witnessed the frustration of a gesturing, prelinguistic child you know the power of motivation. Learning words has a direct bearing on the solution to the problem the child is solving for — nuanced communication. If a child points to her belly because she has a stomachache and mom thinks she’s just hungry the child realizes words are more effective than charades. Necessity, meet your baby, invention.

In contrast to a toddler’s home environment, the school environment concocts contrived problems that feel irrelevant. This makes actual learning an inefficient way to get what they want — good grades. School severs the link between learning and solution. It has replaced this link with “good grades are a solution to getting approval/eliminating pain”.  My most pressing problem in the confined setting is how do I get my parents or teacher off my back so I can do what I want. Not how long it took train A to overtake train B if A is moving twice as fast B.

For the kids who aren’t totally defeated by the seeming irrelevance of their education, getting good grades becomes an all-consuming priority. Not learning. We dangled “approval” in front of a child instead of a pertinent goal that would call for actual learning. To a social animal in a group setting, the returns to approval dwarf the returns to true understanding. This is a recipe for an underwhelming formal education.

Instead, we used our capacity to learn to onboard the wrong lessons. What follows is my evolving understanding of:

  1. What school teaches us
  2. What we mean by learning

  3. What’s necessary to learn

  4. How to actually learn



1. School Teaches Us That Time Is Scarce

Tim Ferris didn’t teach us the 80/20 rule. School did. It made us feel that time is scarce.

Nabeel Qureshi1 recounts his calculus education:

I remember being taught calculus at school and getting stuck on the “dy/dx” notation (aka Leibniz notation) for calculus. The “dy/dx” just looked like a fraction, it looked like we were doing division, but we weren’t actually doing division. “dy/dx” doesn’t mean “dy” divided by “dx”, it means “the value of an infinitesimal change in y with respect to an infinitesimal change in x”, and I didn’t see how you could break this thing apart as though it was simple division. At one point the proof of the fundamental theorem of calculus involved multiplying out a polynomial, and along the way you could cancel out “dy*dx” because “both of these quantities are infinitesimal, so in effect, this can be canceled out”.

This reasoning did not make sense. It turns out that my misgivings were right, and that the Leibniz notation is basically just a convenient shorthand and that you more or less can treat those things “as if” they are fractions, but the proof is super complicated etc. Moreover, the Leibniz shorthand is actually far more powerful and easier to work with than Newton’s functions-based shorthand, which is why mainland Europe got way ahead of England (which stuck with Newton’s notation) in calculus. And then all of the logical problems didn’t really get sorted out until Riemann came along 200 years later and formulated calculus in terms of limits.

But all of that went over my head in high school. At the time, I was infuriated by these inadequate proofs, but I was under time pressure to just learn the operations so that I could answer exam questions because the class needed to move onto the next thing. And since you actually can answer the exam questions and mechanically perform calculus operations without ever deeply understanding calculus, it’s much easier to just get by and do the exam without really questioning the concepts deeply — which is in fact what happens for most people.

This process is not limited to math. Here’s Nabeel on liberal arts:2

My problem with a lot of humanities education is that it trains you to find arguments for/against things, but does not train you to find the actual truth. You’re rewarded for generating the most original, plausible-sounding arguments, ideally backed by the obscurest writings from the coolest thinkers. At no point is “what is actually true about this topic” really the focus. Robin Hanson calls this “better babblers”. Certain combinations of words have better expected reward outputs than other combinations, so students learn to generate the “winning” combinations in clever ways. In this way everybody GPT-3’s their way to a degree.

In other words, school trains us to do what Eliezer Yudkowsky calls “guessing the teacher’s password“.3 Instead of understanding a concept, we mime an understanding by parroting a verbal sequence back to a teacher. The sequence is comprised of the bold-faced words in your textbook with the occasional memorized equation mixed in for, um, rigor.

If school is teaching us the wrong lessons, Nabeel is clear on the result.

How many people understand in a deeper way? Very few. Moreover, the ‘meta’ lesson is: don’t question it too deeply, you’ll fall behind. Just learn the algorithm, plug in the numbers, and pass your exams. Speed is of the essence. In this way, school kills the “will to understanding” in people.

Ouch. School kills the will to understand. This brings us to the next key point. 

2. Learning is Understanding

Learning is commonly defined as the “acquisition of knowledge”. This is too broad of a definition. Much of what we call “learning” under this definition is simply “labeling”. That thing hanging in the sky all day is the”sun”. That thing where food is created from the sun’s rays is “photosynthesis”.

The words “sun” and “photosynthesis” are symbols representing concepts. The symbol we English speakers know as “sun” is a link in a food chain. But it is also a source of light for illumination, heat for viability, and gravity for lassoing planetary orbits. The ideas that we assign tidy names to have many facets and are context-dependent.

Learning is to increase your understanding of each context and the relationships between them. When we scale the process up we create a web of interlocking ideas. Imagine we could project this knowledge web as a hologram. Then understanding would mean growing the web. Understanding would mean being able to walk around it, seeing it from different angles and under different lights.

Contrasting Deeper Understanding From Broader Learning

Most of school was just ‘labeling’. That type of learning is necessary. It’s a prerequisite for actual understanding.

Let’s consider the pros and cons of the shallow/broad “labeling’ education vs the deep/narrow “understanding” education. A superficial introduction to many ideas is typical of school. The benefit is self-evident. Especially at younger ages when you are a blank slate. As you progress through school you need to pass tests in many subjects. This has a sneaky cost. It trains you to stop exploring at shallow depths.

Nabeel on the risk of staying shallow:

People who have not experienced the thing are unlikely to be generating truth. More likely, they’re resurfacing cached thoughts and narratives. Reading popular science books or news articles is not a substitute for understanding, and may make you stupider, by filling your mind with narratives and stories that don’t represent your own synthesis. Even if you can’t experience the thing directly, try going for information-dense sources with high amounts of detail and facts, and then reason up from those facts. On foreign policy, read books published by university presses — not The Atlantic or The Economist or whatever. You can read those after you’ve developed a model of the thing yourself, against which you can judge the popular narratives.

In contrast, diving deeper means a narrower breadth of topics. The benefit, of course, is finding a meaningful understanding.

Evidence of Understanding

A clue that your understanding is solid and growing is that you can either answer questions (aka solve problems) or you can ask good questions. The trajectory of learning is an ascending dialogue between good questions and good answers which feed back into deeper questions. At each plateau in the dialogue, the learner should be testing the understanding either via practice.

Tiago Forte contrasts superficial book knowledge with hands-on knowledge:4

When you’re applying that knowledge directly to a real-world challenge, you won’t have to worry about memorizing it, integrating it, or even fully understanding it. You will only have to apply it, and any gaps in your understanding will very quickly reveal themselves. By the time you’re done solving a real problem with it, book knowledge has become experiential knowledge. And experiential knowledge is something you carry with you forever.

3. Prerequisites To “Understanding”

People vary in their aptitude and strengths. Fortunately, many of the key ingredients for learning are not inborn but acquired. They are what Nabeel calls good “intellectual software” habits.

Nabeel contrasts “intellectual software” from “intellectual hardware”:

Intelligent people simply aren’t willing to accept answers that they don’t understand…Importantly, this is a ‘software’ trait & is independent of more ‘hardware’ traits such as processing speed, working memory, and other such things. Moreover, I have noticed that these ‘hardware’ traits vary greatly in the smartest people I know — some are remarkably quick thinkers, calculators, readers, whereas others are ‘slow’. The software traits, though, they all have in common — and can, with effort, be learned. What this means is that you can internalize good intellectual habits that, in effect, “increase your intelligence”

Nabeel catalogs these “intellectual software habits” :

a) Determination

For most people… it’s much easier to just stop at an answer that seems to make sense than to pursue everything that you don’t quite get. It’s also so easy to think that you understand something when you actually don’t. This requires a lot of intrinsic motivation because it’s so hard. It’s not just energy. You have to be able to motivate yourself to spend large quantities of energy on a problem, which means on some level that not understanding something — or having a bug in your thinking — bothers you a lot. You have the drive, the will to know.

Many of you will recognize this habit as that annoying thing kids do when they keep asking “why?”. Louis C.K. described it best in this comedy bit.

b) Honesty

Intellectual honesty or integrity: a sort of compulsive unwillingness, or inability, to lie to yourself. Feynman said that “the first rule of science is that you do not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

c) Self-confidence

Here’s Malcolm Gladwell on his father:

My father has zero intellectual insecurities… It has never crossed his mind to be concerned that the world thinks he’s an idiot. He’s not in that game. So if he doesn’t understand something, he just asks you. He doesn’t care if he sounds foolish. He will ask the most obvious question without any sort of concern about it… So he asks lots and lots of dumb, in the best sense of that word, questions. He’ll say to someone, ‘I don’t understand. Explain that to me.’ He’ll just keep asking questions until he gets it right, and I grew up listening to him do this in every conceivable setting. If my father had met Bernie Madoff, he would never have invested money with him because he would have said, ‘I don’t understand’ a hundred times. ‘I don’t understand how that works’, in this kind of dumb, slow voice. ‘I don’t understand, sir. What is going on?’

4. How to learn

  • Make learning about trying to solve problems from the beginning.

If you want to learn Excel, don’t start with a course. Watch some videos then find something useful to build like a budget or portfolio tracker. Learn by doing. Google liberally.

  • Don’t be afraid to go deep.

Jacks of all trades and renaissance men are celebrated. As a guy, I see this embodied by brands like Art of Manliness which extol the virtues of brains and brawn. But this culture can easily give way to “lifehacking”. There’s nothing wrong with this if you are just looking for a bar trick icebreaker. But this is a far cry from being a magician. How do we marry the virtue of breadth with the type of integrity and satisfaction that only comes from depth?

The answer is focus. Consider Josh Waitzkin. Chess champion, tai chi champion, and jiu-jitsu master. As a child, he was the subject of the film Searching For Bobby Fischer. In this thread, we learn how Waitzkin defines and ascends levels of competence. How he establishes an internal locus of control. How he prefers not to “simmer” or multitask. He is either intensely on or intensely off. How he spends 5-10 years immersed in a craft before taking on a new one.

If Waitzkin represents a reliable path to mastery then our modes of spending 8 hours in an office or classroom are simply unnatural. A lion is either peacefully resting or the pinnacle of violence. Her energy is a precious resource of which she cannot spare a drop.

  • Forget the ladder

School felt like a race against time. But even worse, it implied life was a ladder. It’s true you can’t do algebra without arithmetic. But why does algebra need to precede geometry? And for that matter, why are you learning trigonometry before stats? The ladder metaphor is confining. Taylor Pearson breaks down an alternative metaphor coined by Shery Sandburg, “the jungle gym”:5

Using a jungle gym as the metaphor for your career opens up all new possibilities that a ladder doesn’t allow for.

For one, a career ladder implies a linear path. The logical thing to do after you step on the first rung is to step on the second rung. There is a very different end when you get on a jungle gym than when you get on a ladder. What do you do on a ladder? Climb to the top, obviously. What do you do on a jungle gym? Well, you can still climb to the top. But you could also hang from it and feel your shoulders stretch. You could drop to the ground and rest for a few minutes when you get tired.

No one looks down on someone for not climbing to the top of a jungle gym the way they would look down on someone not climbing to the top of a ladder. We look down at people who climb the career ladder slowly (or not at all) because why would you not get to the top of a ladder as fast as possible? That’s the whole point of a ladder.

You can also extend the metaphor in interesting ways. A jungle gym is on a playground and if there’s some asshole camping out at the top, you can simply go play on something else. Perhaps there is another jungle gym. Or some monkey bars. Or a fort. There isn’t a better or worse way to play on a jungle gym or playground. You just do what gets you excited.

  • Zooming in

Perhaps the most powerful tool we have when learning is the ability to get our hands dirty. Tinker. Throw some numbers in a spreadsheet and play. Jot words down on the page and re-arrange. Sketch. Draw arrows. Trace. Copy. Take a photo. Explain an idea to someone else and handle their questions honestly. Re-examine the holes in your understanding.

Nabeel pulls an example from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to explain how come closer to insight:

He’d been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first, he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of anything to say. One of them, a girl with strong-lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hundred word essay about the United States. He was used to the sinking feeling that comes from statements like this, and suggested without disparagement that she narrow it down to just Bozeman.

When the paper came due she didn’t have it and was quite upset. She had tried and tried but she just couldn’t think of anything to say. He had already discussed her with her previous instructors and they’d confirmed his impressions of her. She was very serious, disciplined and hardworking, but extremely dull. Not a spark of creativity in her anywhere. Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, were the eyes of a drudge. She wasn’t bluffing him, she really couldn’t think of anything to say, and was upset by her inability to do as she was told. It just stumped him. Now he couldn’t think of anything to say. A silence occurred, and then a peculiar answer:

“Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman.”

It was a stroke of insight. She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distress that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn’t think of anything to say, and couldn’t understand why, if she couldn’t think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street. He was furious.

“You’re not looking!” he said.

A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn’t looking and yet somehow didn’t understand this.

He told her angrily, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.”

Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide. She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five- thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana.

“I sat in the hamburger stand across the street,” she said, “and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don’t understand it.”

She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn’t think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn’t recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before.

The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.

When I’m feeling anxious I find that it’s coincident with thinking too much. Like I’m stuck in my own head. The remedy is to bring ideas down to the level of action. Build a model focused on a narrow problem, spend time with others, or get outside and active. It’s counterproductive to spend too much time in the abstract at the expense of field observation. Zooming in allows you to reduce dimensions and recruit more senses. When I start feeling lost I try to remember “Bozeman”.

Conclusion

Life is demanding. Everyone is busy. It’s not realistic nor desirable to acquire a deep understanding of most things or even many things. But when you choose to 80/20 something make sure it’s a choice and not just a bad habit overlearned from years of academic grinding.  

Personally, I never wanted to 80/20 learning the guitar by just learning a few “cowboy” chords. The best explanation for that is my interest in guitar isn’t derived (an example of a derived interest would be to learn guitar “to get chicks”). Guitar itself is the end goal. In this case, understanding requires study, deliberate practice, and tinkering. There’s no goal in mind but progress moves in many directions not along a single arrow. Developing an ear, improving rhythm, improvisation, copying songs, and applying bits of theory across all these domains is a slow but rewarding endeavor. I can’t say anything I did in school mapped well to how I approach my hobbies or career. Because in things that actually matter to me I learn because it sustains me. Not because I have to pass a test.

School is a scalable solution to a public need. I found the experience dreary. I’m not an expert on school and I recognize that the desires and constraints of all its stakeholders are varied. The system is asked to make impossible compromises. But I wrote this with a particular irony in mind. One that seems to pop up over and over amongst old and new friends alike.

People who call themselves lifelong learners didn’t actually start learning until after they were out of school.

Ultimately I just have questions.

Could we have trained our “understanding” muscles earlier and ended up in the same or better place even if our educations were narrower or more tailored to our curiosities?

Did we race to the finish line only to bring the wrong lessons into adulthood? Did those lessons dictate how we live and what jobs we choose?

We don’t need that education.


“The shortcut is twice as long.”

-unknown


The Post Every Prospective Homeschooler Needs

With the upcoming school year set to be remote Yinh and I panicked. We felt like distance learning was the worst of all worlds and not suitable for young children (our kids were in preschool and 1st grade). We wanted to know our options. So we looked into homeschooling. As in unenrolling from public school and taking ownership of educating our boys.

In researching, we were introduced to a friend of a friend, who whether she likes it or not, must now be our friend too because she’s amazing and we won’t take no for an answer.

Why do I feel that way?

Because of her amazing response when I asked her for guidance on homeschooling. Remember I was basically a stranger reaching out. I got her permission to publish it here. I’ve edited it modestly, adding some headings and changing her girls’ names.

I hope this enlightens you as much as it did Yinh and I.


Background

I have two daughters, Mary (9) and Amy (6). We started homeschooling Mary last year in second grade and this current year was my first year with both girls. I was utterly bewildered when we started this homeschooling thing, and I still feel overwhelmed at times, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how fun it is. The girls don’t always have good attitudes, there are occasional tears, but I take it as a good sign.

Some hints of unadvertised benefits of homeschooling

When we first started, Mary would occasionally burst into tears and I mistakenly thought she was trying to manipulate me. I was eventually able to coax it out of her that she sometimes felt like crying in school, but didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of her class, so she just held it in. With me at home, they can let out all their frustrated feelings when they’re overwhelmed. I was also surprised at how easy it is to gauge their understanding and progress. It is so obvious when they really grasp the material and when they need more time/practice. As a non-teacher, I was sure I would fail at this endeavor, but when it’s just us, one-on-one, it’s manageable. My sister-in-law, who was a classroom teacher and then homeschooled her four kids, told me that so much of what teachers learn in college is classroom management, which you don’t really need at home with just your kids.

Transition to homeschool

The transition from a classroom to home can be so jarring. Some kids need a “detox” period when they truly start homeschooling, and not just distance learning. As I’m sure you’ve learned already, they need lots of motion breaks, especially without the social pressure of the classroom to sit. Another big difference between the classroom and home is writing. Writing will be the source of many breakdowns. Writing is so hard for elementary kids – forming the right letters, putting them in the right sequence, considering punctuation. At school, teachers often scribe for the class while teaching a lesson. At home, we can lessen the writing burden by scribing for them or allowing them to narrate their answers. Ask what the purpose of the assignment is. Is it to assess their knowledge or to practice writing? Is it to draw out big, fun ideas from their wondrous brains? You can even have them copy the answer you wrote down. They’ll be practicing writing for the rest of their lives. They’ve got time.

Loosely scripted days

Sometimes we’re halfway through school at 8am. Sometimes we don’t start til the crack of noon. Sometimes my kids crave a schedule. Sometimes my kids want to choose what’s next. Sometimes they like to sit at the table to work. Sometimes they’re hanging upside down on the trapeze while they answer questions about a reading assignment. Moods and needs change. I’m flexible when I can be and try to pick my battles.

A custom education

There are so many different styles of homeschooling, so many different curricula to choose from. Some kids like the worksheets and workbooks because it feels like real school. Other kids need a more relaxed approach. I have a friend who just buys generic workbooks in every subject and has her daughter do one lesson a day until they’re finished. I have a friend who uses mostly online programs (Time 4 Learning, Starfall, etc.) so she can work while her kids do school. I have a friend whose kids run wild all day, and she just pulls them in for 10-15 minutes at a time for a quick lesson. I have another friend who unschools, which is a lot more work than you’d think. There’s the Charlotte Mason philosophy and Classical education. There are even people who gameschool. The options are overwhelming!

Getting comfortable with the inevitable uncertainty

The good news is that even if all you do is read books and do a little math in the next year, your child will be fine. In elementary school, science and social studies is just a repetition of what they did the previous year with a little bit more detail. Science is the plant life cycle, the planets, maybe the density experiment with oil, water, and corn syrup. Social studies is a lot of boring talk about community rules, community helpers, and US symbols. A lot of the work in science and social studies at this age is just practicing how to read for information. That can be done with much more interesting sources than dusty old textbooks. Art, music, nature, and poetry are springboards for science, history, and literature. Art includes movies and video games. Film scores are music and rap is poetry. Trace a leaf. Copy down the lyrics to a favorite song. Watch a TV show and ask “Who’s being brave?” There’s no limit to where they can go. As an example, Amy listened to a Classics for Kids podcast about Vivaldi and got curious. We listened to The Four Seasons as she did other school work. Then she painted a picture of what she hears in the music, wrote a description of her painting, and copied the sonnet that accompanies the season. She noticed similar words in the English translation and the original Italian sonnet and looked up some Latin root words. When her hand got tired, we traded off writing sentences. We listened to more podcasts about the Baroque Era, looked at art and architecture from the same period, read The Story of the Orchestra, listened to the Beethoven’s Wig series of silly songs set to classical pieces, and watched Fantasia. There’s no limit to where they can go when they show curiosity. Something to keep in mind as you explore the world with them: so many available resources are Euro-, white-, and Christian-centric. We keep a map of the world and mark where our interests have taken us, reminding us there’s a big world out there with more to offer. We ask three questions of everything we read, listen to, or watch: 1) Who’s telling the story? 2) Who benefits from the story? 3) Who’s left out of the story?

More good news: everything is learning!

Cooking, cleaning, sorting laundry, organizing a bookshelf, drawing on the wall, laying on the floor and staring at the ceiling in utter boredom. All learning! You don’t have to have a plan or a project or even an idea. Some of the best learning experiences we’ve had have been completely accidental. Learning happens everywhere all the time. It can be slow and not feel like learning but that’s okay. We have nothing else to do for the next year, right?

How to Start

There are two ways to officially homeschool in California: 1) Declare your home a private school by filing an affidavit with the Department of Education. There’s very little oversight beyond keeping records for attendance. 2) Enroll in a public charter school where the learning takes place at home. We are enrolled in Visions in Education and have friends who use Valley View. Families are assigned a credentialed teacher (CT) who offers guidance about curriculum, collects work samples, acts as a teaching coach, and generally keeps us all moving in the right direction. Because it is a public school, students are held to the same standards as any California public schools. We meet with our CT at least once every 20 school days (which works out to about once a month) where she collects work samples and chats with the kids to assess their learning. It’s very informal and we love our meetings. They’re very reassuring for me and the girls like to show off what they’ve been doing. We really click with our CT, but I have friends who have butted heads a bit with theirs. In addition to having the guidance of a CT, the public charter option provides a student budget to purchase curriculum and to pay for extracurriculars, which can be anything from art lessons to dance classes to sports. We get $2700 per student per year with Visions. The kids are able to try all kinds of classes and we use most of it to pay for the expensive outdoor ed program they attend at Sienna Ranch. The bad news is charter schools have seen a lot of interest in the last few months, but it doesn’t hurt to put in an application. I have a friend who was waitlisted last July but got a call in October because families had withdrawn after deciding it wasn’t the path for them.

There are so many other choices out there, but it helped me in my first (very overwhelming) year to deeply research just the ones that meet CA standards. Cathy Duffy is well known for her curriculum reviews. She is blatantly Christian, but she’s reviewed just about everything out there and is a great place to start if a particular program catches your eye. She is also great at noting what has religious content and what is secular. I also read a lot on the Secular Homeschool forums before we took the plunge. It offered great insights into what I could expect in this adventure. People discuss common problems they’ve run into, programs they’ve had success with, programs that were not a good fit for their learners, etc. Other resources that have guided our choices are https://seahomeschoolers.com/ and https://www.tolerance.org/. The latter, from the Southern Poverty Law Center, has been particularly useful in establishing an anti-racist learning environment.

I’ll outline below some of the programs I’ve used. It is A Lot, but homeschooling doesn’t have to be A Lot! Don’t let the following list overwhelm you.

Resources By Discipline

Language Arts

I used the Brave Writer program for both girls this year. For the 6-year-old, we used The Wand for reading/phonics and Jot It Down for writing. I was skeptical about the effectiveness of the phonics portion, but we’ve seen really great results. In fact, I was so impressed, I started having Mary sit in on Amy’s lessons and she learned so much that she had somehow missed in public school.

For Mary, we used The Arrow and Parternship Writing. The Arrow guides use a very relaxed, conversational style. It felt weird to be so informal, without vocabulary exercises and comprehension questions to answer, but they were so engaged and obviously learning. Next year for first grade, we will use The Dart for Amy and continue to use The Arrow for Mary.

We had a lot of fun with Jot It Down and Partnership Writing too. Brave Writer wants to get to the heart of what writing is really about – communicating. Rather than be restricted by the mechanics of it all, we help get all those great ideas onto the paper. Our job as the parent is to jot it down for them. Sometimes I just record Amy’s voice so we can write it down later together or I take dictation for her as she answers questions or gives me her thoughts or we trade off writing sentences. Mary does a lot of the writing herself, but I jump in for dictation or recording her voice whenever she needs it. The mechanics will come in time. Our role is to help them develop their ideas. They do get some practice with mechanics and learn grammar through copywork and dictation in The Wand/The Arrow part of the curriculum. Our teacher loves the work we do with Brave Writer so much that she’s going to use it with her kids this summer (and possibly fall, depending on what school looks like then). It’s always the first thing she wants to see when we meet with her. As a teacher, she loves it.

The downside to Brave Writer is that it’s very parent-participation-heavy. I used to schedule the girls’ writing time at the same time but I had to switch that up. I couldn’t do two at once. It also takes some prep work for you to support them. It takes a project or two of practicing but now I remember the questions and methods to use without thinking twice about it. It also helped me adjust to this new mindset when it comes to writing. I leave the grammar and the spelling to the grammar and spelling lessons. Writing is about the ideas and what they have to say. The best writing mechanics doesn’t mean anything if the writer doesn’t have a good idea! It was hard at first, but now I’m able to let the girls take their projects in whatever direction they want. It may not be to the exact letter of the assignment, but as long as it’s in the spirit of the assignment, I let them run wild. For example, Amy’s animal book assignment morphed into a trip to the zoo. She carried a clipboard around all day, copied down the names of the animals she was interested in, took pictures of them (and the informative placards in from of the enclosures), and then wrote about them when we got home. She included a little personal bit for each animal based on our trip to the zoo. (Ex: We saw seven lemurs from a tunnel in the enclosure.) She even included a squirrel in her book and was delighted at her trick because it wasn’t really a zoo animal, it just lived on the grounds. She was so excited to see her zoo trip come to life in her very own book. I had her type it on the computer so she even got to practice her typing skills for this project too. Point being, you and your learner can do as much or as little as you want. Some assignments just aren’t as interesting to them as others and that’s okay. Do as much as they’re inspired to do and let it go when they’re done.

I also use a simple writing workbook with the girls called Building Writers, from Learning Without Tears. They are short, easy exercises that help them with the mechanics of writing. So even though I may talk a big game about being breezy with expectations, I still on some level can’t let go of the mechanics! But Building Writers is truly just a little sentence practice in the elementary phase. It’s meant to build their confidence and ease with writing and I feel it’s been helpful. I also use the handwriting books from Learning Without Tears, which have been great for my kids.

We use a separate spelling program called Words Their Way. My teacher friends rave about it and my kids have been very successful with it. It involves sorting lists of words to notice their patterns. Last year, I used Soaring With Spelling. Mary never got less than 100% on a spelling test, but still couldn’t spell worth a damn, so it clearly wasn’t the right program for her. It was the same with our phonics program, Explode the Code. As I said earlier, it’s pretty apparent when a program is working and when it is not.

We used Blackbird last year with Mary and it was a great program, but very formulaic and by the end of the year, she was ready for something new. Our writing program last year was Write Source, which we liked but it was very traditional and I wanted to try something a little different.

Math

For math, we use Math Mammoth and we love it. It’s big on pattern recognition and games, which the girls respond to very well. Last year, I used Primary Math (the Singapore math method) to teach Amy kindergarten math and it was wonderful. We started this year with Math In Focus (the Singapore math method written to align with US standards), but it just didn’t work for us. We switched back to Math Mammoth and we’re all happier for it.

Science

For science, we used Studies Weekly for both girls, which I don’t love. It’s boring, but meets all the CA standards and was a good option for us this year as I figured out how to teach two kids simultaneously. It was also cheap!

Everyone thinks that I, as an engineer, must love teaching science to my kids, but honestly, most programs I’ve looked at make me want to die of boredom. I didn’t pursue science because I liked reading textbooks and making baking soda and vinegar volcanoes. I just liked solving puzzles and figuring things out and finding answers to questions. I like to use nature journaling as a good place to start with science. It’s such a great way to let kids follow rabbit holes to satisfy their curiosity, sometimes in completely unexpected ways. Mary likes to compose poems while observing in nature. Amy isn’t confident in her drawing but loves to take pictures of what she sees. Sometimes she’ll just trace a leaf over and over again, and then color it in using different tools – marker, pencil, crayon, pastel, watercolor – just to experiment. We jot down the things we’re interested in learning about and head to the library (well, we used to) to search for books on the subject.

John Muir Laws made his book about teaching nature journaling free and it is absolutely worth downloading. It gives great advice for how to guide your kids through observations and questions so they can really take in and process what they’re seeing. Often while investigating natural history, we learn about human history as well. (For example, invasive species are a really great introduction to colonialism!) It’s science, art, math, history, geography, and literature all from just observing what we see around us, and it’s so easy to let their interests guide us. One day, I had the kids help me pull weeds in the yard. We organized the weeds into piles after identifying them with the iNaturalist Seek app. We came up with multiple ways to measure our haul – counting, volume, mass. We identified the plant parts and talked about the life cycle of plants in relation to the seasons. We classified them as either monocots or dicots. We counted petals on roses and poppies using multiples of 3,4, and 5. They composed a song about how much they hate weeding. They each picked a flower to draw and paint. As I said earlier, their best learning experiences have been completely unplanned.

This summer, we started Life 1 from Pandia Press’s Real Science Odyssey program and we are really loving it – even me! Pandia Press’s materials are geared toward multiple ages. I was worried it would be too simple for Mary, but both girls are able to understand on their own levels. We’ve had a lot of fun with it so far. Because Real Science Odyssey is based on studying one branch of science for one academic year, it doesn’t meet the CA standards where each branch of science (physical science, life science, earth and space) is covered equally. Our CT is on board with us trying new things and is willing to help us fill in the gaps so we can continue using the program.

Social Studies

We also used Studies Weekly for social studies. Again, it’s boring, but it hits the standards and is cheap. This summer, we started a new history curriculum, also from Pandia Press, called History Quest. Like Real Science Odyssey, we are having so much fun and I am learning right along with them. It doesn’t hit the CA standards, but it’s a lot more engaging than reading boring texts about the usual classroom stuff. It’s actual history!

In the past, I used Pearson myWorld which is a very traditional program, focused on communities and a little basic geography. It was fine, but Mary dreaded it and I had to drag her through every lesson.

Unit Studies/All-in-One

There’s a curriculum type called a unit study that incorporates all different subjects (language arts, social studies, science) while focussing on a novel, though math is usually taught separately. To start the year, we did a unit study through Build Your Library for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets where we studied astronomy, botany, mythology, and Greek and Latin etymology as we read the book. The girls wrote articles for the Daily Prophet, created myths to accompany constellations they made up, and devised new spells based on Greek and Latin root words.

Build Your Library also offers a complete second grade curriculum. It’s a very affordable PDF, but there are lots of books to buy or borrow from the library. It’s the same with Torchlight, a very similar curriculum. I’ve been using the kindergarten level of Torchlight on a casual basis this year for the world geography and culture. The girls love it and look forward to reading our books and visiting places via Google Earth and youtube and museums every morning at breakfast. The booklists from BYL and Torchlight are extensive and an amazing resource, even if you never homeschool. We’ve found so many wonderful books from their lists. I chose Torchlight over Build Your Library because BYL uses Story of the World as a spine (backbone of the program). SotW is pretty problematic. Until recently, it was the only attempt to teach world history as a story, which really keeps kids’ attention. But it only starts 6000 years ago and is very Euro-, Christian-, and white-centric. Pandia Press has started releasing similar books that are less problematic, but as of now they only have History Quest Early Times 1 (elementary level) available. They are working hard to release History Quest Middle Ages 1 before September.

Some other popular complete curriculum packages are Moving Beyond the Page and Oak Meadow. The tricky thing about complete packages is that if you or your learner ends up not liking it, you’ve spent hundreds of dollars and now you need to spend more to find something that does work for your family.

Video Game Veto

Several family members wanted to get Zak a Nintendo Switch when he turned 7 a few weeks ago. I shot it down. I’m the bad guy. Sorry, not sorry. I’ll defend my stance and do you one better. I’ll explain why my stance even needs to be defended. Somehow in this battle over video games, I found myself on the low ground.

First, my defense is simple. Opportunity cost. Here’s an example. My 4-year-old Max recently lost his iPad for 10 days. For those of you who follow Yinh’s Insta (feel free to follow, her ‘stories’ are more amusing than anything I write), there was a period of this kid creating his own Marvel paper costumes and pumping out artwork like he was getting paid commission. Less screentime meant more creativity.

When the iPad resurfaced, it crowded out much of his ingenuity. It’s worse than that too. The iPad summons the devil. Every time Max is asked to turn off the screen we suffer a hell tantrum. All the phases of opiate withdrawal unfolding several times a day.

Zak, being 7 and having better emotional control, is not as dramatic but the video games are still crowding out his creativity.

You would think my no-Switch policy would be unanimously embraced. You’d be wrong. Here are the arguments and pro-video game propaganda I push back against.

  • “You played video games and look how you turned out”

    If you grew up in the era of “blowing dust” out of your NES cartridges and have managed to simply not blow your life to smithereens, people will say this to you. We have all seen the amusing correlation/causation pictures. Well, this fallacy is a specific strain of those spurious conclusions. The post-hoc fallacy. If Y came after X, then Y caused X.

    This fallacy is everywhere. Kid has hives. Sleeps in parents’ bed. Hives go away. Therefore, his bed caused the hives. (This just happened in our house). You have a cold so you drink soup. Cold goes away. Must have been the soup. These interventions are given credit for mean reversion’s work.

    The video game example is even worse in my mind because of opportunity cost. I might have a good job today in spite of, not because of, video games. How much didn’t I do because of video games? Maybe I would have been a better athlete, musician, or programmer. All activities that competed for time with video games. Hobbies that if cultivated would have been unambiguously more rewarding considering, today, I wish I was better in all 3 domains and could care less about my video game skills.

  • Video games have benefits

    When I was a kid, I was told video games “rot your brain”. Today, everything from critical thinking to reflexes are attributed to playing games. Scholarships, profits, and Ninja all lend games a legitimacy they didn’t enjoy in 1987. Nothing will make you seem stodgier, techno-fearing, and possibly stupid than being anti-video game.

    Consider Shopify founder Tobi Lutke. He is outspoken in his claims of games like Factorio and Starcraft contributing to his business savvy. Well, if you have ever heard Tobi speak, he’s really smart. A mind like his is going to deconstruct strategy and actively pull the insights from the game. Being analytical in the first place is what’s most important. If it wasn’t video games, he would have cracked something else.

    It’s not the game, it’s the approach to the game. Just like TV or movies or reading. Any passive activity can be intellectually enriching if your approach is active. When you read are you asking what the themes are? Why is the author framing things a certain way? How does it relate to other knowledge? Critically reading or watching can turn “brain-rotting” behaviors into brain-building ones.

Pushing Back Against The Modern Halo Around Gaming

You’d be forgiven for thinking I contribute to the gaming halo. The gaming section of my site is anchored by Let Your Kids Play Boardgames. Some nuance is in order. Our kids play some video games. Playing them is not especially bad or good. I put it in the same category as passively watching TV and it would count against that attention budget. (I reserve the right to modify my stance for games especially strategic or competitive).

Gaming, video or tabletop, can be an amazing way to learn. Fun is a renewable form of fuel to burn. Yet in the wrong personality, it can be horribly inefficient. Like learning about basketball from watching the Kardashians. How many people playing poker on their phones mindlessly are internalizing probability lessons? And parents, you know zombie-mode when you see it.

The halo of gaming stems from its strategic and competitive aspects. Still, strategy and planning can be acquired in many ways. Just this week I was thinking about how much Zak could learn if I asked him to break down the steps to catch a trout. He’d need to find out where to go when to go, what bait to use, and what technique to employ. Taking a big problem and breaking it into smaller steps.

Gaming has fast feedback cycles. Great for learning. But also convenient to get a mouse to push a dopamine lever. Then there’s the whole issue of transference. Does becoming a grandmaster make you better at other strategic endeavors or does it just make you good at chess? And here’s the diabolical question — if the grandmaster excelled in other domains how much credit should we give to chess? Again the fallacy rears its head, post hoc ergo propter hoc. Our minds are so easily tricked. The literature on transference is mixed, but it’s such a believable grift that most people won’t bother to check.

Overall I think the benefits of games are conveniently oversold. Just like TV, if accompanied by parental prompts and guidance they can be an enriching tool to practice critical thinking. Some kids, like young Tobi Lutke, will be inclined that way on their own. Many will just stare with dead eyes, unfazed if the house was burning down. Maybe I’m just an old crank who wishes he had that time back. I’d rather see what kids come up with when they aren’t sitting in front of a screen.

Kathleen Mercury on Board Gaming With Education Podcast

Link: https://www.boardgamingwitheducation.com/games-in-schools-and-libraries/

About Kathleen: Educator with a special focus on teaching gifted students game design (Link)

Transcription: Otter.AI

I incorporated Kathleen’s presentation to these notes for the sake of consolidation.


Overview

Kathleen believes:

“Happiness comes from being able to choose the life you want to live.”

To empower students there are 2 anchor ideas:


Be Producers Not Consumers

…what I want more than anything for my students is for them to be creators, not consumers…The only thing I care about is what ideas they have, and giving them the tools where they feel empowered to take on big complex challenges where they have no idea of what the final product will be, but that they can build in and learn the skills and confidence that they can hopefully get themselves there. That’s what I care about because if I can get them to accept that and do that, then they can pretty much take on whatever challenges come their way for the rest of their lives.

Bias Towards Action

For those familiar with the Silicon Valley ethos of “Move fast and break things” this will be familiar. Despite, her midwest roots and home Kathleen’s thinking has been heavily influenced by the Stanford D-School.

…probably the biggest thing that’s helped me is the Stanford design school’s method of prototype development. I went to a design-thinking boot camp, and the design mindsets that were presented as far as when you’re wanting to design something for someone else, and how you should think about it. Here’s how you should approach it. And it was so different from what I was doing, but it was just one of those things where it’s like, oh my god this is 100%, what I should be doing and it completely pivoted everything that I was doing. For example “bias towards action”. Instead of just thinking about something just start doing it. Rapid iteration making prototypes fast and cheap so you can get them on the table so that you can fail quickly see what works, see what doesn’t work quickly and so you can make more versions of something even faster.

It’s designed to keep them moving quickly so that nothing becomes precious and nothing becomes so sacred that they won’t get rid of it. And I think for me as a teacher, that’s really helped me and also helped me as a game designer in terms of trying something getting it out there, seeing what happens getting feedback on it and making improvements to it as well.

Lessons From Teaching


On using games in learning

  • I think for a lot of gaming experiences in the classroom, having everybody involved at the same time, really, really matters for success.” (Party games are a good tool for this)
  • A good teacher can make a lot of things fun. Sparks a love of learning.
  • Bridging the abstract to concrete
  • Critical Thinking
  • Information more sticky/accessible. Increases connections.
  • Boosts engagement & connections (made me think of how a local teacher used Pokemon cards to bring the boys and girls in 1st grade together)

On kids having different abilities

  • Everyone deserves to learn at their level every single day that’s just one of those tenets that I just hold. If you’re doing something where their disabilities or inabilities become apparent to others. I think you have to be really careful about how you handle that. As far as you know what you’re willing to do to, you know, protect them to take care of them because if they’re stressed out and embarrassed.

  • Approach to gifted kids:

    1. If you don’t give gifted kids problems to solve, they will create their own.
    2. They need to learn how to struggle and work through it.
  • Heterogeneous groupings can protect kids by partnering up.

  • But homogenous groupings have advantages too.

For my gifted kids, a lot of times when that happens, they’re always like the ones that are like spread out amongst the other groups, and then they put all the spread out all the middle kids and then they spread out all this sort of low kids and pardon me for speaking in broad brushstrokes but I am. And so a lot of times they never get chances to work with each other. And one thing that research shows is that when you let kids have similar abilities work with each other. Everyone gains, because the kids on the middle step it up, and the kids on the lower end also step it up, even if it’s like one notch higher, you know, that’s okay for them, you know they’re using their abilities and what they know and trying to push themselves up to be more competitive as well

  • Why the emphasis on points in winning is redundant.

Points are used to ultimately communicate your position in the game to other people. And if we’re playing a game that is just to be, you know, a review or something like that I don’t care about the points at all. And so, what I will often do is even if they get points, or if one team starts to get a blow out. I will, you know, do something like say “this is a 20 point question”, and then somehow I manage to make it so that kids on the other team get those points, or I start awarding ridiculous points my cool you just got a puppy. So drop puppy up there on the scoreboard.  

Why teach game design?

  • Develop analytical, practical, and creative thinking skills

  • Autonomy and collaboration
  • Teaching game design is teaching to orient towards an internal scorecard not an external one

That quantitative checkmark feeds into a lot of the programming that we’ve already done with kids as far as you know letter grades and standardized tests and success is 100% and success is, you know, an A plus is, you know, and I think for a lot of my students especially having to sort of break that mentality. A lot of what I do in teaching game design is here is this problem that cannot be solved, or notions like that. Here is this problem that you will have to you have to define the problem. You have to figure out how you’re going to solve this problem, you’re going to design your tests with these resources in terms of you know how close are you to solving this problem and you’re gonna do this again and again and again, you’re going to make a prototype you’re going to put it in front of other people, they’re going to play it, you’re going to get their feedback, and then you’re going to take those ideas, and that, you know, good, bad, the ugly. Incorporate that into your next design so that when that hits the table hopefully it’s better. Thinking of it as an unfinished unending hopefully upwardly ascending sort of cascade. See that process as a real process reflective of what life will be, I think is really important, because for a lot of my kids, you know they’ve learned what successes is and it’s an A+. I’m trying to show them that if you want to do anything cool, there will never be A+. You will never be finished. You will always just have to try to do your best to put out your best possible effort, listen to other people, and hopefully make that idea better and so that’s why I teach game design.

The reason why I teach game design is a teaches them this process of thinking design, thinking hands-on, trying to create solutions and learning how to see successes incremental progress, not as I finished I’m done.

We do talk about how it can be finished and not perfect and that’s really important for a lot of them. That you can have something that is unfinished. And you can see it as successful because you did try to make it better, even if you don’t think it’s better. And that’s really really hard for them to accept because it goes against everything they’ve always done

  • An antidote to results-based thinking

I honestly try to minimize any type of objective points in any kind of game situation as much as possible, because no one should ever be blamed for losing for their team, and I honestly don’t want anybody to be, you know, the fourth batter to just hit the Grand Slam home run and they get all the credit, not the people who also got on first, second and third.

  • Be thoughtful about when points matter

It does make sense to have kids have scoring that matters, but I think you have to really ask yourself, is this that time.

  • Not having grades at all doesn’t really work

And if I had my choice I wouldn’t do grades at all, but this is the world we live in and I have to actually try tried one year to not give out grades and our gifted class. There’s some unintended consequences there but there you go. We tried it once. As much as we wanted it to work it didn’t really work.

Projects Kathleen and Dustin Are Pushing Forward

  • Game Database To Aid Teachers looking to use games to augment material

    I think that something you touched on and I’ve been kind of thrown around in my head is creating some sort of database where teachers are teaching a unit on something and they can go on there and see what kind of games they can use in their class to either tackle review or tackle preview and concepts of the whatever material they’re learning. It would be really good for teachers to find like a resource where they can just go to, and save time and kind of have this lesson plan that they can use.

  •  Formalizing standards

Look at the curriculum that I have and formalize it a little bit in terms of standards that it’s meeting. That’s something that people ask me about that I haven’t really ever have had to do. And I think it’s something that I’m interested in one because it will make it even easier for people to use these resources in their classroom but it also. I’m really like thinking about the idea of what are the things that people could do to get their kids to think like game designers to use design thinking, using games, what would be appropriate, you know the early elementary level, the later elementary level, the middle school level, the high school level. So that if somebody wants to do something with game design in the classroom, they’ve got a better chance of success. That they’re not over-shooting or under-shooting what their kids are able to do but also in terms of tying this, you know, more specifically to actual curriculum. Then it can be easier for their administrators to use.

Teaching My 6-Year-Old A 21st Century Lesson

If reading boardgame rules is fun, you have a promising law career in your future. For the rest of us, it’s far less painful to YouTube tutorials. This applies to nearly every 21st-century question. How to fix a drain, do a muscle-up, change a tire, troubleshoot Apple Airplay.

Since we are all “homeschoolers” now, I’m trying to be more cognizant of teaching moments in our normal routines. This week as we sheltered-at-home it’s been a boardgame bonanza. Even more than it normally is around our house. Boardgames are filled with teaching moments.  But this week we spotted an opportunity for meta-learning as well as the 21st-century skill of “googling it”. We broke out the boardgame Pandemic for the first time with our 6-year-old. Instead of teaching him how to play, we turned the tables.

The assignment

We asked him to learn how to play by finding a video on Youtube then teach us. I supervised his progress and interjected suggestions as he approached the problem.

How it unfolded

  • Finding the video

The first step required typing “how to play pandemic” into the search bar.  We use YouTube through a smart tv. That means painfully typing with a remote control. But there was a silver lining…as he added a letter the auto-complete options would narrow. Once I pointed this out to him, every new letter he typed came with fun feedback. Seeing the autocomplete list change. By the time he got to “how to pl”, all of the the suggestions began “how to play…”. When I asked him what would happen when he added an “a” to his query, I was delighted that he recognized the autocomplete list would not change. There was some thinking going on. Cool. By the time he got to “how to play p”, the suggestion “how to play pandemic” appeared. He reacted like he won the lotto.

The video I wanted to use was one of the first search results (I myself had learned to play from this video), so I prompted him to select it.

  • Learning how to setup and play

Just as an adult would need to he quickly learned he needed to pause the video every few moments to follow-along. A methodical, painstaking process. He had to maintain attention and be persistent. Worthy lessons of course. The actual rulebook can be used as a reference. In our case, we had a different edition of Pandemic than the video which was a slight but welcome complication since it provided another teaching moment.

  • Teaching us how to play

This was the step where I had to play my largest supporting role. Filling in gaps as he explained to mom. Teaching games to people is an art in itself. Requiring empathy and patience and strategy. Knowing what you need to explain upfront vs what will become trivially clear once you start playing. There’s a balance between how much a person should be asked to retain to get started and actually getting started. Our kid probably tilts more towards lawyer…overexplainer, so I have to cut him off (he gets excited, its actually pretty cool) in the spirit of expediency and momentum.

Next time you crack open a new game, see if you can have your child learn the rules and teach you. It’s a great way to get more out of the game than its embedded lesson. And when your kid gets good enough at this you can pass the torch of household rule explainer. It’s a thankless role. Another idea kids should learn early.

Happy gaming and homeschooling!

Here’s the video we used. I highly recommend Rodney Smith’s Watch It Played tutorial series.

The Distance Learning Links You Need

Resources for parents with kids at home

Start Here

  • Outstanding tips and resources for kids both offline and online (Link)
  • Shane Parrish’s crowdsourced thread of learning resources (Link)
  • List of all education companies now offering free subscriptions (Link)

Schools

  • Outschool: Live online learning for all grades and subjects (Link)
  • A Guide to Using Khan Academy Kids for Remote Learning (Link)
  • Beanstalk: Distance learning made free for the duration of the COVID threat (Link)

Focused Resources

  • Mystery Science: elementary science videos (Link)
  • Kurzgesagt: animated science videos  (Link)
  • 3Blue1Brown: animated math concepts (Link)
  • Moontower list of resources to teach kids about money & business (Link)

Game Focus

  • Moontower guide to game-based learning (Link)
  • Moontower reader Erik Berg’s favorite board games and why (Link)

Interactive

  • Nicky Case has the best explorable games to learn about complex phenomena (Link)
  • Nicky is building an explorable COVID game to understand how infections spread (Link).
  • Science Buddies: A great site for finding science projects by interest and age level. We want to do the one about germ spread. (Link)

Schedules

  • Khan Academy’s Recommended Schedules (Link)
  • That schedule floating around social media:

Let Your Kids Play Boardgames

I have 7 and 4-year-old sons. I had kids to have gaming companions. Go ahead and judge me. Luckily they like games like their old man. Well just like amoxicillin tastes like Bubble Yum, it turns out gaming is a stealth way to teach your kids how to think. They learn faster when they have a goal in front of them.

This post is intended to be a living document for resources to get your family gaming in gear.

General Tips

  • Normal people don’t like reading rule books. Learning rules is best done via Youtube videos. Just search for a tutorial of the game you are interested in and use the rulebook as a reference. If you need even deeper rule clarifications I’m 99% confident any question you can think of is covered in relevant BGG forum.

  • Find Moontower on BoardgameGeek. This is the best game reference site in the world. It’s an amazing compendium of user-generated content. One of the most engaged, enthusiastic niche communities on the web. I am stunned out how much you can customize your menus and widgets on the site. I don’t fully understand why more communities aren’t copying its features. It does have a learning curve but the ability to catalog games and log plays is superb.

Games for Kids Under 10

  • Evolution: The Beginning (Link)

It’s a card game where you must manage populations of carnivores and herbivores as you try to eat the most food. The punch-counterpunch dynamic of the game maps faithfully to how predator-prey games in nature balance themselves. Concentrate too much on defensive traits and competing populations grow quickly. Modify a species to be an aggressive carnivore and more scavengers appear in the ecosystem. React and adapt. It imparts a beautiful sense of how evolution favors adaptation to the prevailing competitive landscape as opposed towards some march towards a higher form. An organism’s fitness is a purely relative concept. The game’s elegance mirrors nature well.

  • Forbidden Island (Link)

Simple and fun coop game by the same game designer who brought you Pandemic. The game gets kids to work together and while the replayability for adults is limited there is enough variation in board layout and characters to keep kids engaged. Take about 30 minutes to play and requires no more reading than identifying the names of regions. I hear the follow-up Forbidden Desert may be even better.

This was the gateway game that got us into European boardgames 11 years ago. Unless you are used to playing games for hours it might be a reach for age 6 but I’d feel very comfortable teaching it to an 8-year-old. While its conflict is economic like Monopoly, it feels less punitive and the entire design is one of the most elegant I’ve seen. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t enjoy playing this game. Lessons in negotiation, market dynamics, odds, and planning. I highly recommend the Seafarers expansion. We almost never play it without “the sea”. I do not recommend the Cities & Knights expansion which feels likes it changes the essence of the game a bit much.

  • The Magic Labyrinth (Link)

By far the best version of a memory game our household has ever played, No reading required and adults and kids are on equal footing since the game is about trying to remember you and others’ footsteps through a maze with invisible walls. This game was a big hit around here and is one of our favorites to gift since its fun and has few rules to learn.

  • Quacks of Quedlinburg (Link)

Quacks is a bit like a deck builder. It’s known as a bag builder but with a don’t-bust-press-your-luck mechanic. To most of you, that means nothing but for the remaining, you should know this an outstanding game. It’s fun, and while seasoned gamers won’t like this necessarily, it has enough luck to allow a first grader to compete with an adult. I found myself thinking quite a bit about the value of the “options” (they’re actually chips representing ingredients in a potion recipe) in the game and their respective costs. The concepts of theta, volatility, and vega would be visible to someone with a finance background if they looked past the game skin.  An engineer would see this game as a very pure simulation (most likely AI) based problem especially since the game has no trading interactions. Avi tells me the designer is coming out with a much heavier follow-up catering to a less casual crowd.

This game is a centurd old commodity futures trading game. No reading required and is a pure trading game. Open outcry style. It’s a frantic free for all where kids will offer to deal sets of grains (think rice, wheat, corn, barley, etc) to corner the market on a single commodity. The action unfolds in a way that gives a very organic sense for what is getting cheap (offered) vs expensive (what is scarce and in demand). The feeling of market pricing is intuitive and turns over quickly. Rounds take no more than 10 minutes. If your kid can count to 8 they can play although I suspect age 6 or 7 is the floor at which they can think more strategically.

This is another gateway classic. It has the feel of trying to occupy area in an evergrowing modular puzzle. With younger children, I recommend not playing with the “farmers” because the scoring can confuse them unnecessarily.

Games for 10 and Up

A party game like Codenames. Both games are great for teams and so many ages. As word games go Codenames and Balderdash are hall of famers.  Decrypto is an instant classic and honestly, you can play it without buying the game. You just need paper and pen.

A several generations old classic. A game of M&A and stock ownership using the hotel industry as the theme. It’s in a sweet spot of complexity and has clever market-driven dynamics.

  • Power Grid (Link)

A bit higher on the complexity scale. Auctions, networks, optimization, opportunity costs, replacement costs, and cutthroat market dynamics.

A friend argues that you can learn 80% of what you need to know about trading from a few dozen plays.

Games and Investing

I would credit a lot of my reasoning about business and money from playing games. While actually investing is the ultimate game to learn from here are some of my recommendations to get kids and teens starting to think about investing.

  • Incomplete information games: Poker, Bridge, and Magic the Gathering

As a trader trainee, our curriculum included lots of poker. There is no better controlled environment for learning to make decisions under uncertainty. Many fellow trainees had extensive Magic the Gathering backgrounds for similar reasons.

  • Fantasy sports and sports betting

Point spreads and draft positions are valuable early lessons in market efficiency

  • Trading firm Susquehanna’s posts about boardgames

Boardgames: More Than Monopoly and Poker (Link)

On Trading Games (Link)

Articles

  • Designer Nick Bentley on how to get your kids into games and speed their progress (Link)

  • Gameschooling Teaches “Successful Intelligence” (Link)

Top Youtube Channels for Instructions and Reviews

  • Shut Up and Sit Down (Link)

Matt and Quinns are exceptionally bright. And even more hilarious. They are amazing guides to the gaming world. My favorite board game channel.

  • Jamey Stegmaier (Link)

A top game designer reviews and breaks down games expertly

  • The Dice Tower (Link)

Tom Vasel is prolific and has a sense of humor befitting of a game zealot.

Podcast Series Devoted to Games and Learning

  • Games in Schools and Libraries (Link)

Kathleen Mercury is the queen of teaching game design to youngsters. Her passion for turning kids into “producers not consumers” is unrelenting. With an open-source attitude, she is spreading the lessons of her innovative and fun approach to parents and teachers everywhere. She interviews the top practitioners in the game-based learning world.

  • Boardgaming with Education (Link)

Ian Zang covers game-based learning and gamification practices with experts, enthusiasts, and teachers. Get in the weeds of using games to improve education.

Lists By Experts

  • Kathleen Mercury’s recommended games for the classroom sorted by age group (Link)
  • Kathleen Mercury’s “best-of” list if games used in her day camp. (Link)
  • A thread of lists by game camp organizers. (Link)

Lists by Friends

  • Erik Berg’s Favorite Games and Why (Link)

My reaction to Lambda School

I took a free 4 week intro course at Lambda on full-stack web development. I’ve taken a number of online courses on different platforms including Udacity, Khan Academy, and Datacamp. I was especially impressed with Lambda but I was drawn into looking at their income share agreements (ISA) since they resemble option contracts, a furry little construct that I’m pretty familiar with. Lambda’s ISA charges the student 17% of their gross income after they graduate so long as the student is making more than $50,000 per year and the total payments are capped at $30,000. If 5 years passes after graduating, any remaining balance is forgiven.

Lambda is buying a call option on their students (technically it looks more like a call spread since it has a cap) by fronting the cost, ie the option premium, to educate its students. Ever wonder what the most efficient way to give a wide swath of people a chance to improve their careers is? Try aligning your next paycheck with theirs. While all schools have a vested interest in their students succeeding, Lambda’s interest depends on it far more directly and its vision hacks the power of incentives.

Unbundling

Stratechery’s Ben Thompson on Shane Parrish’s podcast discusses how technology enabled “unbundling” dimensions of hospitality and retail noting how Ebay and AirBnb “digitized trust”. Consider how hotel brands achieved dominance by exploiting scale to standardize in markets that heavily indexed on a single dimension such as safety. By creating a system of reviews and standardizing the process but not the product, AirBnB was able to unlock a plurality of accommodations giving consumers a practical choice in ranking a wider array of preferences than what could previously be served.

Lambda performs the same function in education. It unbundles skill from pedigree while selecting for persistence. Many employers tolerate paying for some averaged indicator of skill and pedigree but an employer looking at a Lambda student pays an unbundled price which acquires more of what they want for less. And this is a better outcome for both employer and crucially the student who might not have otherwise had been hired if they didn’t have a more direct path to both acquire and advertise their skills.

While the ISAs de-risk the student’s well founded concerns of the price of education Lambda must de-risk the employers’ concerns since ultimately, the employers are going to be the ones who effectively pay Lambda back. There is a relentless focus on what the market demands ultimately tightening the correlation between what employers want and what the candidate can deliver.

Solving

Conventional college paths compel students to gamble on a system which loads them with debt tied to murky promises of future employment.

  • Skills are financed at a price which is not economically linked to potential return.
  • Return is increasingly not captured, risk is held by student and taxpayer.
  • No mechanism for ensuring the price of the risk is commensurate with potential
    return.

Lambda is an imaginative inversion which better allocates the price and owners of the fundamental risk of investing in training.

  • Skills are financed by marketplace (Lambda’s stakeholders)
  • Return is recovered by value students bring to market

A familiar, time tested business recipe lies under the hood allowing for the Lambda model to earn a profit and be self-sustaining.

  • Vertical integration: Source raw material, refine, pre-sell to end user
  • Quality control: Obsessively attend to the need of the student and the end client
  • Scale: Port process geographically, into adjacent studies, and eventually to any market where significant headcounts are being offered premium wages.

My take

I have been an option market maker and portfolio manager for the better part of 20 years. If I can competently price, assume, and manage the risks that the market wants to transfer I get paid.

It is not a stretch to argue that Lambda is a market making business that warehouses a risk that both the suppliers and consumers of talent prefer to transfer. In this case Lambda is positive sum, especially for those who need its path the most. There will
always be well-pedigreed teens who can gather a conventional education with little or manageable debt and have real choices that do not impair his/her future. But it’s the student confronted with a Hobson’s choice about taking on no education or an
overpriced one who has the most to gain from Lambda delivering on its mission.

I am a big fan of their multi-angle approach to providing employers and students a win-win proposition by underwriting then mitigating the unpooled risks that individual learners own.

  • I dig their initiative to teach students personal finance now that they will be on
    their way towards actually saving. That’s a proper career services office!
  • I dig the ambition to extend beyond coding in the future.
  • I dig the commitment to creating the best product — “Build Weeks”,
    collaboration with employers, simulating actual production environments (Slack, team based learning), relevant capstone projects

While a properly structured ISA is very elegant, I can imagine it being perceived as too radical. But I say paying hundreds of thousands dollars for an education that is untethered to any reasonable expectation of a return is radical. Lambda is a long overdue experiment. The incrementalism in changing the status quo is a response to legacy institutions’ self-preserving instinct and doesn’t reflect the degree to which its customers (ie the students) are under-served. Lambda is seizing this gap in the market between what students need to thrive in a skills based marketplace and the outmoded value proposition in conventional higher ed.

Being educated is a key to a free society and should be the default option but its price should not be an indenture. If Lambda can de-risk the alternative path for students by providing employers with effective hires then it will validate a real choice for future learners.

The implications of its success have far-reaching effects. A market based alternative which does not rely on uneconomical subsidized loans offers a sustainable equilibrium for all stakeholders. Employers will have reduced risk in their hires, students will be less indebted, taxpayers can stop underwriting poorly performing debt, and alas the policy makers who may be fully aware of the system’s unsuitability but are beholden to incremental measures can go work on something else.

Lambda’s laser focused commitment to listening to and serving the needs of both students and employers is the key to value and abundance for all stakeholders. I am not surprised the last couple years has proved the concept and it’s now ramping.

As Y Combinator founder Paul Graham said of Lambda’s founder Austen Allred:

Its future appears unbounded and we should all hope it is.