There is always discussion and debate about new educational methods. For instance, nowadays there is a gradual move toward student-centered education. Of course there is also intense analysis about just what role digital technology should play in the …
Elon Musk is, without doubt, an extraordinary person. Born in South Africa, Musk made his fortune with PayPal, eventually selling out to form a veritable galaxy of companies and technologies. These include electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer Tesla, private space company Space-X, the remarkable HyperLoop technology that promises to revolutionize high speed ground transport, and cutting-edge solar power manufacturer SolarCity. He even created a “Boring Company” (yes that’s really its name) designed to dig massive underground tunnels beneath cities like Los Angeles in order to reduce traffic congestion. He’s among the wealthiest people on earth, with an estimated net worth of $15.2 billion. Among his initiatives, however, is a particularly tantalizing effort: he built a school.
Elon Musk is a dad with five sons: a pair of twins born in 2004, and a set of triplets born in 2006. By all accounts Musk is a devoted, involved dad, and when they began attending school in early 2010 Musk was dissatisfied with the education they were receiving. This isn’t about private versus public school but rather the education models used by pretty much all schools in America. Well, Musk didn’t like it and so, as an entrepreneurial tinker, he started his own school, originally for the children of Space-X employees called, appropriately enough, Ad Astra (to the stars).
Ad Astra has one philosophy at its core: student-centered learning. This is an unorthodox approach that, in the case of Ad Astra, employs individualized courses of study that allows students to pursue their interests and passions in addition to required material. According to Musk, the goal is to have education adjust to the unique characteristics of each student, rejecting what Musk calls the “mass production” approach of current schooling that requires young people to adjust to fit the system.
“Some people love English or languages. Some people love math. Some people love music. Different abilities, different times,” Musk says. “It makes more sense to cater the education to match their aptitudes and abilities.”
The school does not have grades, with all students learning together and helping one another when needed, and whenever possible the goal is to emphasize hands-on learning. According to Musk, the goal is to empower students to follow their passions while encouraging each student to focus on problem-solving.
The latest reports have indicated that Ad Astra is still a very small endeavor, with only around two dozen students enrolled. And is it working? Musk himself insists it does indeed work — almost to a fault. He says his sons now prefer school over holidays, and get fidgety when they’ve been away from school too long.
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The summer holidays are swiftly approaching, which means it’s time to start coming up with things to do for your youngsters. While reliable activities such as summer camp, day camp or just plain loafin’ are always there, other possibilities beckon — possibilities that, while being fun, can also be educational.
1. Model Rocketry
This hobby has been around awhile, but it’s tons of fun. The way it works is simple: you assemble a rocket (mostly using glue and stickers), insert a standard-sized rocket engine, then insert an igniter into the engine, and then launch it from a simple launch pad using an electric trigger-switch. The rockets and engines vary in size and capability; they can be small and simple or huge and high-flying. Make sure you have access to a very large open field, as the wind can really catch these (especially during the parachute phase). If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, you can attach experiments, sensors or video cameras to your rocket. Watching them soar into the sky at top speed will thrill your kid every time!
One of the best uses possible for your kid’s smartphone, geocaching combines socializing, competition, the thrill of the hunt and, of course, high technology. Geocachers leave small items for others to find out in the world. Using coordinates and GPS technology, the goal is to find those items (which only have a token value if any at all). It’s also standard to include a logbook so people can add their name to the list of those who have found it. Now it may sound geeky, but it’s tons of fun and there’s a massive online community of geocachers — chances are there are targets to find near you.
Planting and nurturing flowers and vegetables is both dead simple and incredibly complicated. Plant, water, prune, weed. Pretty straightforward. Except that some plants require more sun exposure than others. Different flowers bloom at different times in the growing season, some plants can only grow in specific climate zones, water demands can vary … things get more complicated the more you do it. But really diving in, starting with plans, keeping a garden journal, and best of all watching life spring from the soil, can be tons of fun. You don’t even need land, a few pots will do.
It’s not crazy to think that looking at the stars “properly” requires a hugely expensive telescope equipped with a high-tech motorized mount and an aperture wide enough to drive a school bus through. The truth is, however, such costly tools, while desirable, are not at all necessary. Cheap refractor telescopes, your grandfather’s old binoculars and even a set of opera glasses can reveal amazing sights in the night sky. Even in cities where light pollution renders much of the heavens invisible, it’s still possible to observe the moon, our solar system and even orbiting objects like the International Space Station. There’s tons to see right above your head — just remember to be careful when you’re out at night, and never to look at the sun!
Educating at home presents many challenges, but thankfully there are loads of helpful resources available that can provide learning content, organizational tools, lesson plans and lots more. Here is just a small selection of the resources available:
It’s possible you might think of Google Docs as Microsoft Word for the Internet, but it’s far more than that. In addition to word processing and spreadsheets, Google Docs offers templates, collaboration tools, and integrates seamlessly with Google Calendar. You can even share class time remotely with Google Hangouts. In addition to helping with schoolwork, mastering Google Docs will provide an important life skill.
eBooks can be a very cost-effective resource for homeschooling. eBooks tend to be cheaper than hard-copy books, and screen-focused young people often find them easier to read (and it helps that eReading apps include handy features such as bookmarking and highlighting). But Project Gutenberg is a fantastic site that offers many thousands of classic works for free download. You’re unlikely to find the latest bestsellers, but they do have a veritable ocean of works on every subject up to the mid-20th Century or so. Definitely worth a visit.
This is an app that will keep your whole family organized. It provides to-do lists and calendars along with integration with Google Calendars, but it is popular among homeschoolers because it’s great for scheduling lessons too. Definitely a useful way of keeping on top of all your at-home learning.
This is a website run by an international not-for-profit that provides heaps of lessons on every subject imaginable, all for free (though they gladly accept tax-deductible donations). Looking for help teaching calculus? How about biology? Or just tips on mental health and bullying? They have it all.
It can be hard to prepare for tests and exams — studying is such a struggle for so many people. Enter Quizlet, which helps out with flashcards and other study tools based on data from thousands of studying sessions in a very long list of subjects. Learning efficient study techniques is a crucial learning skill, and Quizlet can help you do it.
There are plenty of presentation applications nowadays, including Powerpoint and the previously mentioned Google Docs. One app that’s very popular, however, is Prezi. Students love the ease with which they can create funky presentations that look incredibly professional. You’ll be amazed how quickly your child will master it.
This is just a small sampling of the many apps and websites that can lend a helping hand in the hard work of educating youngsters. There are other resources available, but perhaps the best help can be found in speaking with an educational professional. In-home, one-on-one tutors can fill in any gaps that may crop up in homeschooling.
When we think about our sociability, we tend to think in either/or terms, as we do with so many aspects of human psychology. In other words, the question always seems to boil down to whether we are introverts or extroverts. Well, a new study suggests that most of us are somewhere in between those poles, falling into a lesser-known category: ambiverts.
For young people, this can be an important question. Socialization can be a real challenge, but using binary labels can put people in a box, build unreasonable expectations or just plain increase stress because they might not fit. The truth, however, seems far more interesting — and holds out the possibility that young people may possess strengths they may not see.
According to a recent study, ambiverts can often possess the strengths of both extroverts and introverts. For instance, an ambivert would be able to talk to people as well as listen intently. The study found that ambiverts, contrary to popular perceptions, actually make the best salespeople:
“Grant’s research also disproved the powerful and widely held notion that the best-performing sales people are extroverts. He found that ambiverts’ greater social flexibility enabled them to outsell all other groups, moving 51 percent more product per hour than the average salesperson. Notice how sales increased as extroversion increased, peaking with those who were just moderately extroverted.”
Research has linked this aspect of sociability with the level of dopamine in the brain. People with higher levels of dopamine are receiving a higher degree of neurological stimulation, so they tend to be introverts — being less social helps them reduce the level of stimulation they receive. Extroverts on the other hand are just the opposite: with less dopamine in their brains, being under-stimulated leads to boredom and isolation.
The vast majority of people, however — around two-thirds of the population, according to the above-referenced study — do not fall into the either/or category. They can be outgoing or not, depending on the situation and their own state of mind.
So if you’ve always found you don’t quite fit either of the introvert/extrovert labels, you might simply occupy a different, more moderate point on the sociability spectrum.
More information on ambiverts can be found here.
When you stop and think about it, smartphones are extraordinary devices. They offer multiple forms of communication — voice, text and video — as well as a connection to the Internet, access to audio and video streaming, satellite navigation and a veritable galaxy of apps. It’s no wonder they’ve taken society by storm, especially the world of young people. But are they a bit too powerful? Too dangerous? Too distracting? Should they be banned from classrooms, or embraced as learning tools? Let’s look at some pros and cons:
Instant access for parents
Any teacher can tell you that parents are a major source of calls and texts in the classroom. Some are simple workaday messages like coordinating after-school pickups, while others are of greater importance, concerning family emergencies. Many parents deeply appreciate being able to reach their kids when necessary.
Let’s face it, phones are great for research. They provide ready access not only to the World Wide Web but countless research databases and up-to-date news services. Instead of sitting in their seats not knowing answers to questions, students can find their own answers, bringing a bit of student-centered learning to the classroom.
We’ve now reached the point where real work is being performed on cell phones, up to and including feature films and bestselling novels. Students can easily write assignments, shoot and edit photos, audio and video, and craft presentations, then share their work with the whole class via projector or Smartboard. Properly employed, today’s phones can be powerful tools for learning.
The standard learning model is not the best for everyone. There are many reasons why a student might be unwilling or unable to speak up in the classroom, including learning exceptionalities and just plain shyness. Social media-based learning models offer a route for broader participation and sharing. Indeed the familiarity most young people have with social media can reduce stress associated with learning.
Safety of digital devices
Officially, smartphones pose no medical risk to people who use them. However, questions remain about the methods used in dismissing those risks, so the matter, to many people, is far from settled. Even if there is no risk, the fears many parents have can make the use of smartphones in the classroom a controversial choice.
It can be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for teachers to control what students view on their phones. We all know that a vast amount of inappropriate content is freely available, and this includes content that is harmful but gets less media coverage — for instance teen gambling is a serious problem. Schools frequently implement firewalls to block such content but tech-savvy students routinely find ways around these measures.
Inappropriate contact and cyberbullying
The digital world can be dangerous. Not only are there predators, but students can sometimes be convinced to share compromising imagery. At the same time, some youngsters find themselves the targets of cyberbullying. Using phones in the classroom can inadvertently expose young people to these dangers — the opposite of the goals of educators, who are traditionally devoted to the safety of their students.
Distraction from schoolwork
Phones are fun. They’re fun. If adults can have trouble tearing their eyes away from the little things, then so can young people. Classrooms are supposed to be devoted to learning, and if students are using their phones for non-educational purposes, well, the whole endeavor is just a waste of everyone’s time.
Applying for college is a long, difficult, even painful process. Young people work so hard to paint themselves as desirable candidates for universities that are all but guaranteed to receive far more applicants than than they can ever hope to approve. Indeed some schools only accept fewer than 10% of qualified applicants. This is certainly the case in the fabled Ivy League, the elite assembly of schools with an admissions process so notoriously difficult as to be effectively out of reach for most young people. Well, wait a minute! Maybe that’s not true. One amazing teen in the Los Angeles suburb of Walnut, managed to gain acceptance to the entire Ivy League — plus Stanford and UC Berkeley. The key to her achievement? A dynamite admission essay.
Cassandra Hsiao is a first-generation immigrant to America of Malaysian/Taiwanese heritage. As a recent arrival, she has struggled to fit in. She has had to learn a new language, of course, and this involves not just vocabulary and grammar but cultural context and slang, which can be so very difficult to grasp. There is also the effort required to adapt to new ways of performing basic tasks we so often take for granted, ranging from banking to driving to doing well in school. And if all this wasn’t enough there is the contrast between daily life out in the world and daily life at home, where older cultural and linguistic norms often stick around for years.
This struggle, and the resulting feelings of alienation, served as the topic of Ms. Hsiao’s admissions essay:
“We were both crying now. My mother asked me to teach her proper English so old white ladies at Target wouldn’t laugh at her pronunciation. It has not been easy. There is a measure of guilt when I sew her letters together. Long vowels, double consonants — I am still learning myself. Sometimes I let the brokenness slide to spare her pride but perhaps I have hurt her more to spare mine.”
Ms. Hsiao really knocked the socks off the admissions officers who read it. Worth noting, however, is the fact that Hsiao is no ordinary high school student. Though still only seventeen years old, she is a practicing entertainment journalist, and has interviewed movie stars. In other words there’s more to her applications than just the essay.
The bottom line, however, is that her applications were accepted on their merits — she had no strings to pull. This is worth considering for ambitious students who might be too intimidated to aim for the top. The truth is, you never know what might happen.