Our family has been doing a lot of reflecting since the fire ... and recently our reflections have been about childhood education. Anyone who has ever been confused by what WEquil School is and where it came from will probably want to read this...even if you do not homeschool. We've had some revelations that I am confident will prove at the very least interesting to nearly every parent.
Everyone we knew started homeschooling out of necessity on March 1st (my birthday) of 2020 because all the schools shut down. We sat down as a family to talk about our options. Ultimately we settled on what we now call "Project Based Learning" although at the time we just called it learning.
Both our daughters had blogs before the pandemic. Mom and I gave them space on our family website WEquil.com. For example, Aila had just published "Adventures of Stuffy McLu" before the pandemic ... a list of stories about things she did with her favorite stuffed animal. Sumay wrote an article with me about "Lies we tell kids" which questions why parents tell kids to believe in Santa and the Tooth Fairy (2). We also made documentaries about new technologies like Solar Energy and Plant Based Meat.
Note: We published these before the pandemic, but moved them around in 2020 so the publication dates are more recent.
Suffice to say that both my daughters had a lot of training in this approach to learning long before the pandemic even started. Another example is Sumay's "gift" for teaching. In reality I had been teaching her to program since she was six years old. She actually charged $10 an hour to teach a few friends as early as eight years old.
This is important for me to understand and explain to parents with interest in WEquil School because it helps to set the right expectations...something I often failed to do.
Ever since the pandemic I have described my daughters approach to homeschooling as "kid led" ... implying that parents and teachers could kick back and watch the magic happen...focusing mostly on positive encouragement and ensuring freedom to let their creative juices flow.
This was a dramatic over-simplification that I wish now to correct and explain more accurately.
Why? ... That is the key question.
Why are a small fraction of kids able to apply a self-directed approach to learning while the vast majority struggle and need a lot of support?
Previously I thought the answer was strategy.
I sincerely thought that if a parent anywhere watched our videos and followed our directions that their children would ...within a few weeks ... love learning and start using their time wisely.
That is a fantasy.
My daughters had a lot of things that most every child on the planet does not have.
1) Parents with graduate degrees and professional careers. 2) Supplemental experience like learning to program and write at a very young age. 3) Great teachers from a great public school before the pandemic.
Lihong and I both happened to win teaching awards the same year ... my senior year in college. Moreover, I was the first and only undergraduate at the time to be hired by the Economics department at Iowa State University. That happened before my sophomore year. By my senior year I was teaching graduate students how to teach undergraduate students economics as part of my job for the university. These experiences laid the ground work for me receiving a Young Alumni award in 2018.
All of these factors gave our daughters a leg up in life.
They were not simply born with these gifts, nor is it logical to assume that they could do what they do now without our very dedicated help early in their lives.
What is the point?
My point is that parenting and education takes a lot of work and some luck.
We think we have some valuable insights to share about how to help young people become confident, curious and apply themselves to create value for the world. That said, I think a lot of it comes down to spending a lot of quality time with children.
This TED talk was one of the inspirations for me writing this article. In it a five year old girl explains how her dad helped her develop.
Aila said this video reminded her of "Baby Bishop" ... a video mom took of her and me when Aila was maybe a year old.
Both exhibit the same basic strategy ... we both were giving long stretches of undivided attention to those babies.
That's pretty much the same thing we do now ... and increasingly Aila instead of Sumay and I because she loves entertaining young people while also helping them create! Here is a video of me talking to a young boy named Gavin during the pandemic. Yes, I had a giant afro at the time. No that is not the secret.
All I am really doing is spending time listening to Gavin tell me (and Sumay) about his interests. His interests are not all that different from other boys his age. He likes playing video games. He is also into Harry Potter.
At this point ... WEquil School has produced well over a thousand projects so we have lots of examples to share with parents. The easiest projects demonstrate what we call "Creative Intelligence" or the ability to turn learning into a process of creation. These projects can be about anything so long as they are novel and useful. Often times these projects are about games, books, movies, or a recent vacation...focusing on sharing something personal.
In Gavin's case ... I suggested that he write an article about why his favorite character was Snape, and share it with our school. He wrote a great article...because he felt listened to and was interested!
Over time we started to formalize our approach more and more, but the basic approach remains the same...we help kids turn learning into a process of creation. Here is another more recent example with a young man named Jonah who loves building forts. He turned it into a teaching opportunity, essentially creating a "How To" article which he presented to our school.
What remains fascinating to me is how project-based learning lends itself to kids making money ... because when kids are engaged in creating something novel and useful. Here is a business inspired by Aila's WEquil Wands called Cataplay. The entrepreneur's name is Cyrus...and he was eight when he put this together.
So what were the factors that helped make this happen?
First ... engaged parents.
I know these parents personally. They spend a lot of time with their kids. They do not stare at their cell phones when their kids talk to them. When their kids ask them questions they put down what they are doing and answer them sincerely.
And ... importantly ... they help them with their projects!
One of the most inspiring parents we have met since the pandemic is Candice Dugger. She an amazing parent and business women who helps children overcome bullying by becoming entrepreneurs.
She has been a big supporter of Sumay and now Aila ever since they met perhaps a year ago. Both my daughters joined Candice and her team of youth entrepreneurs just before the fire. Every parent there had a very similar approach with their kids...encouraging them to do real things to prepare for the real world.
Here is a snippet of a podcast recorded at this event that has not come out yet (took this video from my phone). Every kid was invited to contribute. Many of these kids were under ten years old. Now THAT builds confidence!!
Discovering Candice, her team, and other parents engaging their kids in doing "projects" like publishing books, creating apps, writing research articles, building products, composing music, and teaching had a big impact on me ... because it helped me understand that this was a powerful new learning philosophy that could scale!
How to WEquil School?
We are making some changes to our school in light of some of these revelations.
First, we are going to provide parents with a lot more support.
What we do is challenging. I apologize for making it sound easy before the fire. It is not ... but it is ultimately where we want our kids to be because success in our new technology enabled world will require creative problem solving and learning to create value.
We help kids learn to do this through a weekly process. Just like we did with Gavin we talk about their interests and help them come up with a project. We then help them publish and present to their parents.
To accomplish this we are meeting with families on Monday or Tuesday to set goals for the week in a Google Doc. That Google Doc helps parents who are working ... literally stay on the same page as their kids and usually Aila and me. This makes it easy for us to help them without needing other meetings through the week into their presentation on Friday.
Sumay's WEquil.App helps facilitate this process by creating a room for each student and their parents. Students can upload projects in the room, ask questions, schedule their Demo Day time and invite friends to clubs or field trips.
Over time students develop a body of work that helps them not only retain what they have learned, but also helps build their confidence. Aila has published maybe two hundred projects since the pandemic started. She presented on Friday after Sumay's presentation on our upcoming trip to India. If you watch it you will understand why she gets requests for interviews on a regular basis.
Parents that see these accomplishments should know that our daughters had a lot of help.
It is not reasonable to expect children to self-direct their own learning at a young age without years of investment from parents and some luck.
But from what we have learned...it is a lot easier to get kids excited about learning when they have more control over what they do every day. This should not be shocking.
We ask kids that go to public school all the time, "What do you like about school?" ... they always say the same thing ... seeing their friends. Almost without exception, they do not feel they are getting much academically from school. They see it as a chore ... something they must do so they can get into college and hopefully get a good job.
What we help children do is have their cake and eat it too.
Some of our students are in public school like Chirag Biswas ... and use WEquil School as a supplement. He helped lead our Economics Demo Day (link). This is basically what I did with my daughters before the pandemic. That can work so long as your kids are disciplined and willing to spend time after school, on a weekend or over summer break engaged in our program.
Most homeschool because this offers more flexibility...but often makes it harder to socialize. We provide a lot of opportunities for socialization. Starting next week we are meeting Falls Church VA Homeschoolers at Cherry Hill Park, the Library next door, and the Falls Church Community Center (depending on weather) from 2-5pm every Wednesday. We also host clubs and movie nights both locally and virtually. On weekends we look forward to hosting field trips wherever our students wish to go!
When I went to school we had no internet. There was no YouTube or Khan Academy. If I wanted to demonstrate my competence I had to get good grades because I could not publish a book, create a product, or build an app.
The world changed.
So should education.
Sincerely, Joe McPhail
Co-Founder of WEquil.School