Note: This is a more formal, written presentation of the keynote talk I gave at the 2017 Bay Area Homeschool Fair entitled “A Coddiwomple Education,” on homeschooling and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
The audio version of the live keynote can be found here (coming soon).
Coddiwomple (kod-ee-wom-pul) (v.) To travel in a purposeful manner towards a vague destination. [English Slang]
I first saw this word and it’s definition on some social media site, layered on top of an inspirational travel photo, and my first thought was “I love that word!” and my second thought was “there’s a term for what I do!” In fact, I would wager many have had the same reaction I did because the thought of coddiwompling is utterly alluring. While most of us readily admit that we don’t know where we are going most of the time, we cling to the idea that our everyday actions have purpose. That our work and routines have meaning. That what we choose to spend time on or who we choose to spend time with matters and will get us to our destination in the end. And we’d be mostly right. But if we are going to coddiwomple, we are going to have to focus on the present. To me, this is more specific than the long-standing phrase of “the journey is the destination.” That’s always seem like a passive response to me. What I’m talking about is creating intention and purpose that, regardless of where we end up, has shaped us and our values so we have autonomy over, as Mary Oliver puts it, our one wild and precious life.
So what does it mean to travel purposefully in our homeschooling journey? Can we create a coddiwomple education? The word purpose means “the reason something is done or created, or the reason something exists, the objective.” I don’t think many of us would say that the reason we homeschool is so that our kid will go to the best college or land a high paying job. Those goals may be a hope or a desire, but that’s not why most of us chose home education. In fact, society still tells us that the best way to secure a successful future is by following the traditional school path, even when all evidence points to the contrary. What we do is so radical, not because it is new, but because our purpose is different. Our purpose is divergent.
Some of us homeschool because the school system was not a good fit for our child’s learning style. Some of us homeschool because our kid is not neurotypical and we can more easily create an environment that allows that child to feel the freedom of learning without the judgement or stress of conforming to a rigid schedule or inappropriate behavioral expectations. Some of us homeschool because we believe than we can provide a better education for our children than the school system can, or we are choosing to opt out of an archaic system designed to produce factory workers and militia during the first industrial revolution. Some of us believe it is against human nature to separate children from their families so early in life. Some of us find ourselves attracted to one or more educational philosophies that fit what we believe learning can or should look like and choose homeschooling as a way to build a life around these values. Some of us homeschool because we simply want our children to learn in the ways that best suit them, and we want to grow a different kind of world citizen. I could go on and on about the reasons families choose this path, there are probably as many reasons as there are families homeschooling. For most of us, there is a combination of experiences and beliefs that led us here, into this community, to begin our coddiwomple education.
When our own family decided to homeschool, I admit we were choosing against something as much as for something. I didn’t realize until recently how far back the seed of this path was planted. I talk a lot with people about how college isn’t the only destination, regardless of what some high school counselors may say. I often use the experience of my husband and I as an example. My husband grew up in Atlanta with his father, an advertising and fine art photographer, who was always interested in cutting edge technology. As a result, my husband had very early access to computers and gaming systems, just as soon as they were available for personal use. He knew the minute he got his hands on a keyboard that this was going to be his future. He wrangled his first job in IT at the tender age of 15, and at 23 filled a U Haul and headed out to San Francisco to be in the center of the technology universe. He tried college, but by the time he took a required academic class in computer science, it was useless because the real world had moved on and so had he. So he dropped out and went to work because he knew who he was and what he wanted. His career is built on passion and experience, and it has served him well. The companies and start-ups may change, though I doubt now he will ever leave his beloved Pandora, but his love for programming and systems has not diminished. I grew up in a neighborhood outside of Sacramento. We did not have much technology in the house, other than a TV and my Gameboy, and it wasn’t until college that I got my first computer. I was a reader, a writer, an artist. College, by the way, was not optional in my house. It was a given. So, without a sense of what I wanted my future to look like, I dutifully went through the motions. It turned out, I LOVED academia. I was so good at it, and eventually, I finally found the departments that sparked joy for me. I remember my mother saying “Humanities? Medieval Archeology? Art?” She begged me to minor in Business. But it was my travels related to these subjects that led me from managing an art gallery to archaeology. On an archaeology site in Scotland, an experience led me back to working directly with the public, which resulted in an enthusiasm for building programs for museums. I wanted to dive deeper so back to university I went, receiving my Masters, which empowered me to run my own business. Recently I unearthed a little book I made for my mother when I was 10. One of the questions inside asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Honestly, I had always remembered wanting to be a marine biologist, like every other dolphin obsessed tween girl of my generation. But my answer was “A Teacher.” Now it makes sense. I got my first job when I was 15, tutoring elementary school age kids in reading. I couldn’t have known then, but through the very windy path of my own learning, education consistently was my purpose. I’m a seeker, though, and as I’m constantly pushing the boundaries of who I am and what I think I can do, it was never in the cards for me to take the linear path. My point is college can help or hinder. It is a tool, not a guarantee. How getting a degree will serve you, the consequences of possible debt, and desire to do the necessary work involved should all be taken into account. My husband and I, one with college and one without, are both (what we consider) successful because we pursued our interests and used education in the way that made the most sense.
Illustrating the years before we had children, when my husband and I were forming our adult selves is imperative to understanding how our family came to homeschooling. When it came time to put my own children in school, I had already seen so much of what the system had to offer. I had worked or visited every kind of classroom in every kind of neighborhood and one thing stood out to me: the knowledge I had spent years developing around how children learn, how their brains develop, how we socialize and grow communities was completely disconnected from what was happening in these rooms. Now, some may have done a better job than others, but there was no escaping the unnatural expectations of conformity and performance. I knew fairly quickly that we were going to opt out and try something different. Our own coddiwomple education has been a classic case. We have tried various pedagogy based on one of my whims or my childrens’ requests. We’ve tried different curriculum and no curriculum, a variety of activities and lessons. We go religiously to park day, then we hate park day. My kids are often inspired by what my husband or I are doing and everyday we try to model what it means to be a life long learner. They even helped me build an international organization, which was an incredible experience for all of us. Through it all, we have always centered their education around and fully commit to whatever it is that they are interested in. In the end, the subjects have mattered less than how we approach them. Every investigation or project offers an opportunity to gain or progress in the language, critical thinking, mathematic, and research skills necessary to a useful education, while also creating space for learning as a pleasurable and exciting pursuit. Every few months we have a family meeting to assess what is working and what needs to change. Each year, our family writes a mission statement that guides our decisions on how best to move forward. This is the commitment we are making to how we will travel purposely together. This is last year’s: “The New Colony Academy seeks a rigorous art and technology based education set in an atmosphere of cleanliness, sass, freedom, and sarcasm.” This year’s is “The New Colony Academy uses technology, art, travel, and community to support the interests and goals of each member in how they learn best. Education is about creating ourselves and giving us choices, learning is lifelong. The NCA is built on the ideology of gaming, normal is boring, geek culture and that, for some, fashion elevates us to a higher state of being.” Change is inevitable, but what has carried us through and validated our choice to homeschool every single year are these values. We construct our own purpose, so that wherever we end up, we know who we are and allow our internal compass to navigate a vague or unfamiliar territory. We are trying to prepare them for a future that is changing.
We are now in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The first revolution brought us steam power and factories to mechanize production, the second changed the world with electricity and mass production, and the third automated production with computer science and information technology. And every time a revolution modernized the world, it also shifted education further from the ways in which humans naturally develop, learn, and socialize. At the start of modern compulsory education in 18th and 19th century, the goal was uniformity in thought, word, and deed. Factories and war both need obedient servants, educated enough to do their jobs but not enough to question authority. Horace Mann crafted careful wording to sell mandatory public education to the US government as a great equalizer, and one could argue that for many it was indeed a way to a better life as the nature of sustainable work changed. We can see, however, that from the beginning this compulsory system began chipping away at the individuality and natural curiosity of its students and contributing to greater societal inequalities. As each new industrial revolution swept the world, the educational system did not change with it, and here we are about two centuries later mired in testing monopolies, irrelevant standardized curriculum, and substantial inequalities. Every attempt at reforming the educational system thus far has been based on the idea that the social issues we find in our educational system are actually moral or disciplinary problems. Reform advocates consistently fail to address the developmental conflict and economic disparities that cause such abysmal results.
This fourth revolution has the potential to have the greatest impact yet. The scope and speed at which technology is being developed, used and adapted is unprecedented. It builds on the digital landscape from third industrial revolution, but is marked by the fusion of digital, physical, and biological technology. The line between the artificial and biological world is becoming increasingly blurred with quickly developing examples such as artificial intelligence and biohacking. We are becoming experts at curating and managing our personal ecosystems to be more productive and connected. The economy is changing from competitive to collaborative. Remember when I said what a radical act it is to homeschool? This is why. After decades of conditioning to mass produce education along with our goods, our community has the foresight and adaptability crucial to shaping and successfully navigating the new world we are in the midst of building. We are one of the few groups willing to look at the evidence and create an entirely new culture around learning. We can be the risk takers, the change agents, and the seers. The kind of education that prepares us to participate in the fourth industrial revolution is primarily skill based. Exposure to changing technology and programming is certainly important but mastery for all is not. Scientific literacy will be the thing that saves us or dooms us. Holistic education that eliminates subjects so that one understands history, humanities, sciences, and mathematics as an interconnected part of our past, present, and future will provide kids with knowledge based on interest and essence. Facts and dates are unnecessary in the era of the smart phone. Knowing how to learn, how to adapt, how to source material, knowledge, and people; these are the foundation of learning in the 21st century.What is essential, then, is not the ability to prepare for a particular future, but to be a shapeshifter in a future we don’t even fully understand yet.
Homeschooling for the new revolution has less to do with whether you identify as an unschooler or an eclectic homeschooler, or any other label given to us or that we put on ourselves, and everything to do with the values we build as the foundation of our home education. School age children are generally in an industrious phase, exploring what they can do or make, how they can explore their interests in meaningful ways, comparing themselves to their family and their friends. They often seek kinesthetic ways of experiencing the world around them. Their community is flexible and changeable, depending on what they are passionate about. This leads into the formation of identity, around the age of 12 or 13, as kids move into adolescence. Everything they have experienced up until this point forms the foundation of who they are and how they see themselves in the world. They commit to this vision, and devote more energy towards strengthening their community, often of like-minded individuals. They are deciding the kind of adult they want to be. If we are educating a generation that will be prepared for a quickly changing world, then we should be using these stages of development to build the skills they will actually need, not the ones that a few men decided were important a little less than 200 years ago.
In my professional work and personal conversations with entrepreneurs and innovators who are on the leading edge of this shift, it has become apparent that the things that make them successful have very little to do with their schooling. In fact, the traditional academic path often hindered their ability to take the risks and think more expansively. A culture that elevates standardized curriculum and tests is suffocating innovation. Over and over these forward thinkers have told me it took years, and lots of mistakes, to trust themselves. The mistakes were certainly a learning experience, but not always to their benefit. The things that have made these people successful: confidence, creativity, the ability to connect ideas, networking, skill building, sourcing information, collecting resources, financial acuity, knowing when to commit to or let go of a project, adaptability, compassion; these values are essential to the new economy and if they are not instilled early, we tend to struggle our whole adult life re-building ourselves.
Instead, we must elevate the key ingredients that create individuals of self awareness and versatility. We can strengthen this generation’s resolve and capability, so that if and when they are broken they can recognize the beauty in experience and kintsugi themselves back together. A young person could have every intention of becoming a lawyer or a surgeon, and stride purposely towards that goal. They will likely even meet that goal. We must not miss the point of why the destination continues to matter less than being purposeful in our journey. There are so many ways in which our lives change over the course of time. Think about it. We need to care for a parent, we have unexpected health problems, we get into bad relationships, we get into the best relationship, we have kids (both unexpectedly and not), we decide to stay home with our kids or we don’t, we struggle financially, we lose our way, we find our way. The destination is vague because the future is constantly changing. What matters is creating happiness now. If a child experiences what happiness feels like, what self-confidence and autonomy feels like, that is what will guide their choices and responses to whatever the future holds.
So how do we build an environment for our children that supports these skills in a purposeful manner? We start with the idea of self-directed learning. When children are small, they are naturally curious, and they seek out new skills and information based on their needs and desires. Much of what they learn is through trial and error, and play. This changes as they grow older in part due to more complex thought, but mostly because of social conditioning. We train children through traditional education methods that there is knowledge they need to know, no matter how boring it is, and that adults are the only way they will obtain it. The dynamic is then set up that there is always an authority who determines what is important. The sooner children are given the autonomy and responsibility over their learning, the less likely they will lose their willingness to experiment, take chances, chase knowledge. As I say in my article about the 6-7 shift, there is plenty of evidence that formal academics shouldn’t even be introduced until age 8. Studies have shown that beginning academics earlier than 7 has no long term benefits, but children who did not begin formal academics until after 7 showed less mental health issues related to stress, better comprehension skills, a more developed ability to self regulate, and a more positive attitude towards learning. Moving forward through childhood and adolescence, there should be no break in our support of our kids having choice and autonomy. I am not advocating that you choose a particular educational philosophy. I am saying that whether you choose Unschooling, Classical Education, Waldorf, or any of the other ways of approaching education, there is always a way for the individual to control their own learning, and it is crucial that they continue to be able to do so.
Another way we create our Coddiwomple education is by actively building our community. Certainly the homeschooling community is one of the easiest and most essential sources of support. Beyond park days, we can create cooperative learning experiences and take field trips that encourage kids to take project based investigations to a new level through collaboration, practice their burgeoning networking skills, and share or gain new ideas. When my last project, a STEAM organization, was based in technology, it did not come as easily to me as it did to others who were early adopters. I did manage to adapt and find my own way of mentoring, but finding others who could do it better than I could was crucial to our success. I made sure my own kids and the kids in my programs understood that. On a larger scale, we should be using our local, national, and international communities to source materials, skills and information without hesitation. Do not be afraid to ask. The world is getting smaller, and we should be taking advantage of that. An expert in a particular field is still just a person like you and me, and usually they are thrilled to help. Case in point, in my most recent history class the kids had a fairly obscure question regarding 17th century galleons. We searched the Internet and the Library to no avail, so we contacted a professor who is a leading authority on the Golden Age of Piracy and got our answer plus more! Not only was that a lesson for the kids on knowing how to find the answers you need, and what is a reliable source (hint- not Wikipedia!) but it was a thrilling, human exchange that meant as much to our expert as it did to us. Think about that. Our interest in his work was validating and meaningful for him, an adult who has made his passion a career. How amazing then our children must feel when we take interest and commit fully to their work, their passions, their ideas.
Finally, anything we do academically should be supported by real life skills. As I said before, the memorization of fact and dates matter little in this world. How to access that information is more important. Exposure and understanding the essence of a myriad of topics in history, the humanities, the sciences, and mathematics is important. Real innovation comes from understanding how things work, and then hacking it to make it unique and new. This is what a Coddlewomple education is to me, travelling the length of learning through a purposeful building of skills so that the vague destination becomes more of a choice. It’s like opening a map and planning your own itinerary. Perhaps you have to change plans because your route is blocked or you find a better one, but you have the tools to make a new plan. Perhaps you make your own map. The purposeful part, the part that prepares our little shapeshifters, is the life skills that allow them that freedom. Create an environment that lets them be who they are, teach them to cook and sew, give them a solid financial understanding, make them aware of their rights as humans and as citizens, find ways for them to be creative in their own way, help them figure out how to communicate effectively in all kinds of relationships, and elevate kindness and compassion. If we are indeed building an education for this fourth industrial revolution, than this one wild and precious life we have must be intentional in preparing our children to help shape it.
In conclusion, I want to share with you that, after an exhaustive search, I was unable to get a verifiable entomology of the word “Coddiwomple.” I also contacted several friends who teach in the English departments of well know British Universities and they had never heard of the word and could not find a source either. This means that it is looking very likely that it’s a word of recent origin. Are you as disappointed as I was that this wasn’t some older English slang coined by someone awesome like Chaucer or Lewis Carroll? It also means that my entire thesis around creating a Coddiwomple Education was based on a meaning constructed by someone who made up a word on the Internet. Personally, I love that. I love that someone needed a word to describe a path that resonates with so many, and they made one up. And so it goes with homeschooling. Whatever we think homeschooling should be is constructed by us. It’s liberating to think that we have the ability to change education simply based on how it needs to serve us, and we have the power to do so. So, here’s to traveling in a purposeful manner with our children towards a vague destination. Bon Voyage!