Family on Bikes

A Family Cycles from the Arctic to Patagonia


Boise, Idaho, USA
August 31
Our family of four (with 13-year-old twin boys) dreamed the impossible dream and reached the unreachable star! On March 21, 2011 we pedaled the final mile to arrive at the end of the world in USHUAIA, Argentina! We spent three years cycling 17,300 miles through 15 countries starting in Alaska to get there.


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APRIL 9, 2012 6:27PM

Four steps to improve education in the USA

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redefining education logoI don’t get it.

A few years ago I remember watching some documentary about the 9/11 conspiracy. They took the exact same set of facts the rest of us had and somehow interpreted them to conclude that the destruction of the World Trade Center was a deliberate act of the US government. A conspiracy designed to throw America into the midst of chaos so some other, more catastrophic, plot could happen.

I don’t buy it.

Other people are convinced that our school system was deliberately and intentionally created and designed to keep people dumb.

I don’t buy that either.

I’ve been reading a lot and watching a lot of videos lately about the “lies, myths, omissions and distortions used to indoctrinate blind patriotism (aka nationalism aka mysticism).”  I listened to Charlotte Thompson Iserbyt talk about how non-profit organizations are “changing the education system from academics to a brainwashing using Pavlovian, Skinnerian, operant conditioning computers and work force training from the globalist economy; the corporate fascist, socialist, communist government that’s coming right in this minute.”

I’ve read Seth Godin’s Stop Stealing Dreams and his thoughts about how our school system was designed 150 years ago to produce slave labor.

Part of the rationale used to sell this major transformation to industrialists was the idea that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn’t a coincidence—it was an investment in our economic future. The plan: trade short-term child-labor wages for longer-term productivity by giving kids a head start in doing what they’re told.

Large-scale education was not developed to motivate kids or to create scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system. Scale was more important than quality, just as it was for most industrialists.

I’ve also been a school teacher for 21 years and have both a BA and an MA in education.

According to many, the “fact” that schools were created to produce worker bees for the benefit of wealthy land-holders is proof enough that schools ought to be demolished and the antiquated system abolished.

I feel they’re barking up the wrong tree.

I believe our schools were created by people with the best interests of our children and our nation in mind. I believe they are still run by people with the best interests of our children and our nation in mind.

It’s just that my definition of what those best interests are and their definition of what those best interests are differ.

  • They believe holding teachers and students accountable through standardized tests is good. I believe that’s a terrible approach.
  • They believe focusing on “the academics” is the best way to turn things around. I believe we need to focus on critical and creative thinking.
  • They believe that starting early and expecting kids to master skills based on age will encourage those children to excel. I believe early pressure prevents normal development in children which, in turn, leads to long-term consequences.

Who’s right?

I like to believe that most (if not all) non-profit organizations in the USA were created because the founder truly believed in the good he or she could bring about. Charlotte Thompson Iserbyt feels they are brainwashing our kids using Pavlovian, Skinnerian, operant conditioning to create a corporate fascist, socialist, communist government. Who’s right? Is there any way to know?

I think the vast majority of people criticizing the schools today are, in fact, criticizing No Child Left Behind. Our schools were doing a great job in helping kids learn how to learn before NCLB came into being. We were “creating” capable, competent, thinking graduates who were able to think creatively and critically. Unfortunately, NCLB destroyed the best our schools had to offer.

As devastating as No Child Left Behind was on our schools, I still believe it was designed and formulated with the best interest of our kids in mind. They thought they could improve reading by mandating it. They thought they could improve the education of our children by holding teachers accountable for their students’ test scores. We know now that was a dismal failure.

Regardless of which viewpoint you agree with, I think we can all agree that the system is broken. Things are seriously wrong in the school system today.

train tracksMaybe I’m a hopeless optimist, but I believe we can fix this thing. I believe we can get control of this train and get it back on the right track. It’s unfortunate that we’ve got a whole generation of kids who’ve been harmed by NCLB, but it’s not too late to grab this bull by the horns and steer it in the right direction.

Here’s what I think needs to happen in our schools:

Ditch the standardized tests.

standardized testThis is the easiest and fastest way to make change in our schools. Standardized tests are very effective in measuring some things, but not the things we need to be emphasizing in our schools. Think about it – if every child who happens to have been on this planet for a set amount of time is expected to answer the exact same thing on a test, what is that test measuring? Not critical or creative thinking, that’s for sure.

Ultimately, having our kids think creatively and knowing how to learn are the most important things we, as adults in their lives, can teach them. The world they will enter tomorrow will be radically different from what we know today. We can’t prepare them for that world as we don’t even know what they’ll need to know. All we can do is help our children develop the skills they’ll need to learn whatever it is they’ll need to learn. And that means knowing how to think creatively and critically and knowing how to learn.

We can’t measure that on a standardized test. What we can measure on those tests is trivia. We can ask kids what the parts of a flower are or to name an example of a nominative pronoun. We can have them identify the main idea of a passage or to solve a math problem that has exactly one correct answer. But there is no way, on a standardized test, to evaluate critical or creative thinking.

Put the focus on learning how to learn

learnKids need to learn how to learn. They need to learn how to think creatively and critically. They need to be able to take a specific set of instructions and figure out how to create a product to fulfill them. They also need to be able to take a larger idea and break it down into components. They need to deduct and induct and deduce and reason. They need to create their own unique solutions to problems.

Constructivism is the idea that “people construct their own understanding and knowledge of the world, through experiencing things and reflecting on those experiences. When we encounter something new, we have to reconcile it with our previous ideas and experience, maybe changing what we believe, or maybe discarding the new information as irrelevant. In any case, we are active creators of our own knowledge. To do this, we must ask questions, explore, and assess what we know.”

Constructivism should be the typical manner of teaching in our classrooms. We should encourage students to use active techniques like experiments and real-world problem solving to create more knowledge and then to reflect on and talk about what they are doing. The teacher need to understand her students’ preexisting conceptions, and guide the activity to address them and then build on them.

In short, when we walk into a classroom, we should see kids actively engaged in their learning. They should be thinking and doing and asking. They should be learning how to learn.

Less is more

less is moreIn order to create a school system that will prepare kids for the challenges they’ll face tomorrow, we need to stop cramming facts and figures into their heads. We need to adopt the philosophy that less is more and delve deeper into what we do teach.

The actual content that is taught is irrelevant; it’s the process of learning that matters. It makes no difference if one third grade teacher teaches the phases of the moon and another teaches the parts of a flower. What matters is that we delve deep into that topic and truly explore it. Rather than simply memorizing the words like waxing gibbous or waning crescent, help kids understand how and why that happens.

Rather than simply memorizing that a stamen is a part of a flower, help kids understand that it is the male reproductive organ of a flower and includes the anther and the filament. Consider form and function and how the two are related. Think about what would happen if the stamen was shaped a bit differently or devise another way nature could have accomplished the same thing

Rather than moving on to new topics every week, spend a quarter or semester digging deep, learning about the why and how rather than just the what.

Parents need to parent

parentingOur schools have evolved to be something much greater than they can possibly be. Many parents are all too ready to hand their children over to the schools and expect the schools to parent their children.

It’s parents’ responsibility to teach their children to brush their teeth and eat healthy food and to treat others with respect. It’s in the home that children should be learning good work ethics and how to dress properly and how to say no to drugs. That’s parenting.

Many parents have chosen to take on both teaching and parenting their children and that’s fine. However, too many parenting tasks have been put into the schools because many parents aren’t doing their job. Seeing as how schools have the kids every day, more and more has been crammed into those hours. There is nothing inherently wrong with teaching kids how to avoid becoming a teen mother or how to stop bullying, but there are only so many hours in a school day.

Asking schools to teach kids to read and write and understand mathematical principles and design scientific studies and identify the causes of our wars AND all that other parenting stuff is too much. Parents need to take responsibility for their children and start being parents.

I believe our schools can be wonderful centers of learning. We can help our nation’s kids be the best they can be. We have the tools, we have the knowledge. Now we need the support. And the freedom to teach the way we know will work.

This post is part of a series of articles by various authors about Redefining Education. All week we’ll be exploring the issues with education today and suggesting ideas for improving it.

Why the School System Isn’t Educating Your Children (And What To Do About It)

Nancy Sathre-Vogel is a long-time schoolteacher turned homeschooling biker mom. All told, she spent four years cycling the Americas with her children, including a 3-year, 17,000-mile jaunt from Alaska to Argentina. Now she lives in Boise, Idaho where she’s happy as a clam. There’s no telling where she’ll be tomorrow. Nancy is the author of this blog and has written three books:

Twenty Miles per Cookie: 9000 Miles of Kid-Powered Adventures

What Were We Thinking? Bicycling the Back Roads of Asia

Bicycle Touring with Children: A Guide to Getting Started

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