Michael Strong: How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education for Less Than $3,000 Per Year
Education entrepreneur Michael Strong took the time to share his knowledge on how to give your child a world-class education in this superb GiveGetWin webinar on August 21st, 2015.
A transcript and recording have been made available below for your benefit:
The class is based on an essay he wrote called How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education for $3,000 Per Year or Less.
William Kiely: Hello everyone, thank you for joining us. My name is William Kiely and I’m the organizer of this event. I would like to introduce you to Michael Strong. He’s going to be your instructor for the evening. Currently Michael is the co-founder of the Khabele-Strong Incubator in Austin, Texas for grades 6–12. He’s one of my favorite educators and he’s going to be talking to you about how to give your child an expensive private education for less than $3000 per year.
Michael Strong: Thanks very much, Will. Before I get started, I’d like to know how many of you have children and how old your children are and what hope you get out of this this evening. There are different issues with respect to different ages of children and I can customize my presentation based on how old the children are.
So how old are your children? And if you don’t have any children, that’s fine as well. But often people interested in a program like this are interested because they are parents.
While I’m waiting to get that information I’ll provide some general background.
I often describe myself as someone who loves learning and hates school. I went to regular public schools in Minnesota and then Colorado. In those schools I did very well. In my junior year of high school I had a teacher that offered a discussion class where we simply read philosophy — Plato, Buber, Nietzsche — and we talked about ideas and I loved it. It was a blast.
After doing that I discovered St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where all classes are taught Socratically. I thought that it sounded like a blast and I wanted to go there. It turns out that I had great test scores on the SAT, so my college counselors in high school advised me to go ahead and apply to the Ivy Leagues.
I went to Harvard and found that I was bored silly there having famous people talk at me. So I transferred back to St. John’s and graduated five years later — I took a year off to travel through Europe — and simply loved reading and thinking about ideas for four years.
I went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago and worked on a dissertation under Nobel Laureate Gary Becker, the economist. From that I started doing Socratic Seminars as the group process discussion that we used at St. John’s was described. The basic format is one reads a text and the professor’s or teacher’s only role is to ask questions about the text. So I started training teachers to lead Socratic Seminars in Chicago Public Schools in the late 1980s.
From there I got a job training teachers full-time in Alaska to lead Socratic Seminars in Homer and Anchorage. We were on grant money in Anchorage. When the grant money ran out, some parents asked me to start a private school based on the Socratic Method I’d been using.
So I started The Atheneum School in Anchorage, Alaska, where the faculty and students all did Tai Chi every morning together. We also did a lot of Socratic Seminars and then there was a lot of project-based learning.
In the meantime, I was asked to join the Montessori School of San Antonio (called the Judson Montessori School at the time) in San Antonio, Texas. Many Montessori educators had seen the Socratic Seminar experience that my colleagues and I had developed as an appropriate secondary school sequel for Montessori education.
Montessori emphasizes highly individualized learning within an environment where children choose their work. The Socratic is more abstract, but it’s appropriate for secondary school because students are free to follow and think their own ideas in a fairly open-ended context. So I Socratized (so to speak) the pre-K-8 Montessori school in San Antonio while training teachers across the country.
I came out with my first book, The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. That lead to a consulting career where I trained thousands of teachers across the country (in mostly public schools and some private schools and parochial schools) in how to lead Socratic Seminars in their classrooms.
At the time I was involved in the field of learnable intelligence, where it turns out that there’s evidence that by means of a kind of questioning — I’ll get into this more later — one can actually raise the intelligence of one’s child and improve cognitive functioning. This was perceived as a way to really develop the scores and learning capacity of young people.
At one point in the public school program I had developed in Anchorage, the minority females in that class gained four years of critical thinking skills in four months. The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, which we used to measure progress, is correlated with both SAT scores and IQ scores.
In addition I started measuring progress based on the College Board SAT. I thought, “The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal is esoteric — nobody has heard of it.” And so I would administer the College Board SAT annually from grade six onward.
We had 8th graders at a Montessori middle school I later created in Palo Alto — our average 8th grade student scored higher than the average private school senior in the United States. So I was able to create high octane (so to speak) cognitive growth in young people by means of this Socratic Practice — again, I’ll get into that in a few minutes.
After the Judson Montessori School in San Antonio, I created the Winston Academy school for highly gifted children in south Florida. We had 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students taking and passing College Board Advanced Placement courses. It was arguably the most academically advanced school in the US at the time.
From there I was recruited to create Montessori middle schools in Palo Alto. That’s where we had our average 8th grade students scoring more highly than the average high school senior.
And then I created the Moreno Valley High School in Angel Fire, New Mexico, which in its third year was ranked the 36th best public high school in the US. And all of the schools ahead of it were either prosperous suburban high schools or magnet high schools. We were in a rural, relatively low-income area and our students took off and performed exceedingly well on the AP tests.
After that I met John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market. He and I both believed in entrepreneurial solutions to world problems — he through creating Whole Foods, myself through creating a series of high performance schools. So I spent much of the last ten years, writing, speaking, talking, connecting entrepreneurs, and developing projects related to entrepreneurial solution to world problems. I have an amazing network of amazing people around the world.
And then last year I reunited with Khotso Khabele, a man with whom I had been on his board in Austin, Texas from 2004 to 2008. He had left his school — he’d been kicked out of the school he founded — and was therefore available to start another one. So last fall, he and I created the Khabele-Strong Incubator, which is designed to be an integrated entrepreneurial incubator plus college prep academic program, where we emphasize Socratic cognitive development on the one hand and real-world entrepreneurial startup skills on the other, because we believe this combination help students be suitably prepared for the 21st century.
We started with 33 students last August, ended the year with 40. Just before this webinar I was meeting with parents eager to get their children into our school. We’re going to be up to about 50–55 this fall and probably 70 next spring. We see this as a kind of education whose time has come.
So I’ll just pause there and let people orient a little bit.
So because we have a few parents with young children and a few with older, I will start at the very beginning with young children. But in order to do so, let’s start with the end in mind.
A rule whenever I think any of us are doing projects, but certainly with respect to education, I start with the end in mind.
A couple of preliminary remarks:
I think in order to be a great parent or a great educator, rule number one is to believe your child is capable and extraordinary in their own way. I feel as if our job as educators and as parents is to identify the unique genius in our child and help them manifest it as powerfully as possible.
It may or may not manifest as mathematics. It may or may not manifest as languages. It may or may not manifest in an academic way at all. It could be their creative genius. Pablo Picasso could barely do arithmetic — he turned out okay. Albert Einstein was very slow to read. I think today he would be put in a special education class and be regarded as cognitively disadvantaged, but obviously he did okay.
I think we need to perceive our children, what they’re strong at, and then develop that to an amazing extent, while also paying attention to whatever other characteristics we believe are important for our child’s success. And I say “we believe” because as one figures out how to optimize their child’s education, you need to decide, as a parent, what the boundaries are in terms of what you think is best for your child.
Personally, I really don’t care about conventional education at all. A lot of the most successful people I’ve known did not follow conventional educational paths. I believe the value of following a strengths-based approach is so important that I really don’t think one needs to care much about the traditional paths. I will talk about ways in which you might want to be concerned about the traditional paths, just so you can do a minimalistic set of traditional preparation, while creating as much freedom as possible.
So, with that whole preface in mind, I’m going to go back to starting with the end in mind.
This is the strategy for college admissions that we are using at the Khabele-Strong Incubator.
Homeschoolers have done such a brilliant job at knocking down the doors of college admissions. Very, very few colleges these days require a high school diploma at all. Very few colleges really care about 20 credits, 30 credits, whatever. Forget the credits. What colleges want is amazing young people.
The example I like to give is when I went to Harvard, the student with the lowest SAT scores in my entry class had been elected Mayor of a small town in Michigan at the age of 18. If your child can get himself elected Mayor of a small town at the age of 18, nobody cares about the test scores. Similarly, if he or she can write a software program that sells, if they can create a YouTube channel that gets a lot of hits, if they can write a novel and get it published — you know, if they do something amazing. That matters, in college admissions and in life.
If you care about getting your child into elite colleges or want the option of giving your child the option of elite college admissions, you will want to develop very high SAT scores in your child, if it’s appropriate. Again, it depends on the child. I think for some children there are situations in which parents’ ego needs are being met by the development of the child’s academic abilities to a very high level. On the other hand, there are some children for whom it is entirely appropriate to develop them to a high level.
So you have to think about who you are and why you are doing what you’re doing with your child, but ultimately I know as much as anybody about high to raise SAT scores in a big way, and we’ll talk about that path. If that path is appropriate for your child, you want to get the SAT scores way up there. Start early, it’s much easier than starting late.
Then a few Advanced Placement courses. These are College Board college courses that if a child has scored a 4 or a 5 (on a scale of 1–5) then the elite colleges will pay attention. But you don’t need to have ten AP courses. There are students at big suburban high schools who take ten APs, fifteen APs — it’s completely unnecessary.
I know the former director of admissions at Yale; I know the son of a famous director of admissions at Princeton. In both cases, these people say — I knew somebody who was on a Harvard admissions committee as well — if they have great SAT scores and a few a great AP scores, those are sufficient signals that the child is academically capable. Beyond academic ability, then some kind of amazing real ability is much more important.
Likewise, they don’t need to have a packed resume in terms of orchestra and student council and volunteer work and varsity sports. Most schools would rather see your child be truly extraordinary in one or two ways than have a resume that’s packed.
I’ve been on scholarship committees where I read three or four hundred scholarship applications a morning. You get bored silly seeing orchestra, student council, varsity sports, straight A’s, blah, blah blah, blah blah, blah blah.
What you want is you want your child to be amazing, stand out, be interesting. One real world case study: A student was applying to Harvard. He had dropped out of high school, gone and joined a Buddhist monastery, came back and finished high school. If nothing else, you’re reading Application #375 — Boom! You remember the kid who dropped out of school to join a Buddhist monastery. Simple as that. So go ahead and support your child’s radical individuality and be amazing at a high level.
So, all of that to hopefully get people to see the importance of a strength-based education and identifying your child’s genius. And how for academic options the SAT is the big thing. If a child knows how to read, write and do math well, basically the SAT is just a reading, writing and math test. If your child has really high reading, writing math skills, then he or she will do fine in an AP course as well.
So as a consequence, your job as parents, even from a young age, is to develop healthy habits and attitudes — healthy, confident children above all. And then beyond that, let’s crank up reading, writing and math to an extraordinary extent. And that child, if they’re confident, happy, emotionally healthy and well, and have high-level reading, writing, and math skills, then boom — we can do the SAT, we can do the AP, you’ve done a strength-based approach so that they’ve done projects that show how brilliant they are, then they will have amazing life options.
I will frankly say that done right, your child will have better options than almost any child from almost any private school, let alone public school.
One specific anecdote: Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal, an early investor in LinkedIn and Facebook, and now a hedge fund billionaire, who a few years ago began sponsoring the Thiel Fellows, which were 20 students under the age of 20, each of whom were awarded $100,000 to drop out of college (or not go, as the case may be) and start a business. The students who win this turn out to be extraordinary young people. Most of them are in some sense homeschooled and most of them are confident young people who have been doing different projects from a young age. Those sorts of people did not worry about passing seventh grade science.
With that vision in mind, let’s start to get more granular in terms of the reading, the writing, and the math.
I won’t talk a lot about the confident holistic, but it is important. I think often school damages children by undermining their confidence. One of the best things you can do at home is to help make sure your child is confident. So we’re talking zero to five year-old children, or even if you have a child in preschool. Fortunately, most preschools do not damage children’s self-esteem. But, be sure that whatever relationships your child is surrounded with, support your child to be happy and well.
All of the small schools I’ve created have attracted kids at least some percentage of whom had been emotionally damaged by their previous school experiences. Sometimes when they get into adolescence, especially with girls, this can manifest as various kinds of self-harm, depression, suicidal thoughts. So above all, make sure you raise your child to be a confident, healthy, happy human being.
Within that, we’ll start with reading, and then go to writing, and then mathematics.
Reading. I would say a prerequisite to developing reading skills to a very high level, is starting at a young age. First of all, limit what I’ll call electronic addictions.
One of the things that shocks and horrifies me is that a lot of American homes have television sets in the living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, the bedroom, in the car, everywhere. Screens everywhere. That’s why I call it electronic addictions. Sometimes it’s TV, sometimes it’s videogames. Whatever it is, kids are always plugged in, and adults are sometimes plugged in, as passive consumers.
If you want your child to be extraordinary, it’s most helpful not to develop addicted behavior vis-à-vis electronics. Those addictive behaviors vis-à-vis electronics will make it more difficult later on for you to transition your child to a life of reading.
I often say that arguably the most valuable part of my own education is that I was raised in northern Minnesota in a very rural area where we had very poor television reception. Basically it was a fuzzy screen with black and white where if we worked really hard we could sort of see some images out there, but it was not a lot of fun, and as a consequence I read. I became a voracious reader. By the time I was in 6th grade I was reading a 200-page book every night. To this day I am an exceptionally fast reader and I consume a lot of diverse material. It’s just of incredible value.
So, the first thing is, minimize screens in your household. It’s okay as a family to watch movie together. There’s no reason to be fanatical about it. But, I’ll give you one data point that’s not well known. If one looks in the United States, people are well aware that in international comparisons American children score poorly on tests. If you only look at those households with three or fewer television sets, you’ll see that American students from homes with three or fewer television sets score (I think it’s) the third highest in the world. What brings the American average down so dramatically to the point where we’re in the middle of the pack of OECD countries, are the huge number of households with three or more television sets. I think it’s something like 70–75% of American households have three or more television sets. And those households have dramatically lower test scores than those with three or fewer.
So, how can we improve America’s place in international rankings? Just reduce the number of TV sets in the house. Sad, but true. I’ve probably ranted enough about that: Limit electronic addictions. As your kids get older, they’ll go to friends’ homes, have lots of screens, whatever. At your home, minimize electronic addictions.
The other things is children are sponges. Everybody is wondering, how do I teach my children? The first is, who you are. Ralph Waldo Emerson says, who you are shouts so loudly I can barely hear what you’re saying.
If the parents are readers, the children are much more likely to be readers.
I have two grown children, one 26 and one 22. My son graduated from Reed with a degree in mathematics, worked as a software developer for a startup company. He’s been recruited by Microsoft and Apple and Amazon. He started the R statistical computing open source package group in Portland. He’s now doing a graduate degree in statistics. He’ll be able to do whatever he wants. My daughter just graduated from St. John’s. She’s still figuring out what she wants, but is happy, confident well and can do anything.
When my children were young, one of the things that my wife and I did was that we read together in the evenings after dinner from the time the children were born. I read aloud to my wife when she was nursing our children. So, before even the tiniest bit of consciousness, evening time was reading time. Evening time was family reading time. Every single night. Occasionally something else would be happening, but pretty much every night.
So what would happen was when my children were still at the crawling stages, they would be opening books and turning pages. They couldn’t read, they had no idea what was going on. But it was a ritual. As a consequence, my children became readers. They were in the habit of reading in the sense of turning pages and being around books well before they were able to decipher. And this was no pressure, no pushing. So one of the other things, no stress, no anxiety. Don’t put your ego needs onto your kids.
One of the greatest insights by Maria Montessori was to create a learning environment where learning happens spontaneously. If you curate the learning environment of your home in the right way: minimum screen times, as many cool, interesting objects, toys, and fun stuff as you can, lots of books, and you model the kind of behavior — you’re an intellectually curious human being, you have engaged conversations, and you read around your kids and with your kids — your children are much more likely to spontaneously become readers.
It’s that simple. You create this immersive environment where your children naturally become readers and then at some point, by the time they’re three or whatever, they’re going to be asking you to teach them to read. You can also of course as you read allowed start sounding out words and pointing out words.
People get all hung up over whole language or phonics. For me, a lot of the debates around education are based one-size-fits-all models in the public school of strictly whole language or strictly phonics, which I would say is mistaken in both cases. Forget almost everything you hear about educational debates when you’re one-on-one with your child, because the fact is that when you’re teaching your child to read, yes you teach them how to sound out words and letters and so forth, and that is basically phonics-based instruction, and sometimes you talk about context, you read whole things, and you read words where they might not know all the letters, and you make it real and alive — that was the original inspiration for whole language reading — you make reading part of your culture and who you are.
So you don’t strictly teach phonics in a narrow way. I can’t imagine a parent doing that. The whole language thing was a reaction to overly narrow phonics. And then the whole language was a disaster; they put phonics back in. Almost every education debate is one extreme and another. As a parent you just naturally teach your child to read. You want to create a warm, enjoyable, fun experience of reading. Your child gets to sit in your lap and cuddle and you talk and it’s time.
My wife used to say — we’re now divorced, but I have a lot of respect for this insight — attention is love. And with children it’s absolutely true. Children crave attention. You want to be giving your child attention for all of the good things. The worst possible situation is when you only give your child attention when they are misbehaving and you ignore them when they are being good. That’s a recipe for disaster.
If you need to correct them you do so quickly without a lot of emotion or distraction, just do it. But, when you’re doing good things like reading with them, love, love them, love them. Make it a delight. You want them to love reading. You want them to remember the experience of reading with you. You want their fondest memories to be with Mom and Dad and books and, you know, this whole thing. If you’re talking about ideas, if you asking them about what you’re reading, you want that to be enjoyable. So the more you can create this environment, the more likely you are to launch your child into a pathway of success.
This is still age 0–5. We’re getting young people to the point where they love to read. And basically I spend so much time on reading because my feeling is that if the child becomes a reader, about 80% of the educational problem has been solved. I regard reading as that important.
I’ve run a lot of schools. When a child comes in and I ask, “Do you read?” And the child says, “Oh yeah, I read this and this and this and this,” I think, okay done, this one is easy. And it doesn’t mean it will be completely easy — sometimes they have learning disabilities, sometimes they have a hard time with math, sometimes they have been emotionally damaged from another school. But, if a child is as reader, basically problem solved.
Because how do you learn most content? Reading. You could say in the 21st century, video and so forth. But I would say that the people with the best jobs in the 21st century are going to be people who still know how to read and writer — or the vast majority of them. So if you want to give your child a great education, read. Love reading. Lots of reading. Reading is normal. Reading is a ritual. And then as the child gets a little bit older you talk about the reading. You ask questions about the reading. And a lot of the questions are warm and inviting. Again you want the experience to be enjoyable.
Never, ever, ever, interact with your child around learning where they’re getting a negative vibe. You have to be acutely aware of the emotional ambiance, emotional manifestation, of your interactions with your child when you want to engage them in learning.
So the way I ask questions with these very young children is to explore what the heck is going on in their heads. They’re in a totally different universe and I want to know what’s going on in that universe.
One of the really fun Socratic discussions I’ve had with four-year-olds even (five-year-olds, a little bit easier) is four sentences. The four sentences are: my name is myself; my body is myself; my mind is myself; my soul is myself. Sometimes four and five-year-olds don’t know mind or soul and that’s okay. Most of them know my name and body. So whether it’s one-on-one or in a group — it’s more fun with a group, even your kids’ friends — ask which is most true. And it’s remarkable. People think, oh philosophy. But, I wonder what they think is true. And a lot of time, some students will say ‘my name is myself,’ but then they think about that one versus the body, and then they realize that well… And you can ask them, would you still be yourself if you had a different name? Or would you be somebody else? They think through that — “Well I’d probably be myself, so maybe my body is myself.” Then you can go to mind and so forth. I’m not attached to the term soul. I have no particular beliefs around it. But it becomes an interesting question to get them to think about what would that mean, if you want to go there.
So even with young children, you can ask all sorts of questions.
To give you a very different example: At one point I was reading two different kinds of alphabet books with a group of children. One alphabet book says ‘alligators swim in the rivers,’ ‘bears climb trees,’ ‘cats hunt mice,’ and so forth. The other is along the lines of ‘A is for alligators,’ ‘B is for bears,’ ‘C is for cats.’ And after reading both alphabet books I asked them, are they both alphabet books? And what’s interesting is some students said, yes, of course. Look, alligators, bears, cats, A, B, C. Other students said, no, no, no, no. It has to say ‘A is for alligator,’ ‘B is for bear,’ otherwise it is not an alphabet book. So the first one, cannot be. And then they developed reasons for that.
With all of these sorts of examples, I as a Socratic questioner am not trying to prove them wrong; I’m not trying to intimidate them; I’m not trying to prove anything at all to them. I just wonder, what’s going on in that universe? We all used to be three or four or whatever. Who are these people? How do they see the world? How do they make sense of the world?
So, with my children and with all of the young children I’ve worked with — and again, I’ve done a lot of work with three and four-year-olds (two is a little young; you can start asking questions, but three becomes a lot more fluid) — I try to discover their universe. When I would drive to school with my son, I would ask him, does this look like the same road we took yesterday or not? And I’m not trying to trick him. I want to try to understand how he’s perceiving the world and how he’s constructing meaning. There’s a whole strand in modern educational theory about how learning is constructing meaning. As a parent you can do a lot to develop your child’s brain by getting them to think metacognitively. Fancy big word, but it’s just getting them to think about thinking. If you ask them, is this the same road we took yesterday or not, they have to think, well is it or not? Simple, simple question, but you’re getting the wheels spinning.
So I spontaneously would have daily these conversations with my children and the children in my schools. This sort of constant reading and then constant questioning, conversation, thinking about ideas. Is this the same road or not? Is this an alphabet book or not? My body is myself. These are all conversations about ideas. You’re getting them to assess, evaluate, think. Those sorts of conversations plus lots of reading will develop your child to an extraordinary extent. You can start from the age of three and pretty much do this sort of thing on up.
I’ll kind of do a radical version. Even if all you did was make your child a reader and you had great conversations with your child, I think you could do that until the child was 11 or 12 or 13 with almost no other education at all, really no other education at all, and your child could turn out to have a spectacular life and do amazing things. Deep, long, thorough reading, thinking, talking is fundamental to everything. And my belief is that most parents are undermining their child’s development by sending them to schools where this is not what happens.
To give you one example with my son, at one point we had moved to Florida so I could start the Winston Academy. There was a secondary school. My children were still in elementary school. My wife and I put our kids in the best public school in Broward County at the time. They had previously been in a Montessori school, which they loved. This school in Broward County, they hated it. We walked in, the second week of school, saw the lunch room, regarded it as abusive, pulled our kids out, and they were unschooled the rest of the year.
But I looked at a book called Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick. My son started reading the series. I would say Gonick’s Cartoon History of the Universe, which my son read in two or three days, had a lot more content than the school history textbook. So he could have spent a whole year going through unbelievably boring, meaningless history, which he would not have remembered; it would have taught him that history is boring and school is a waste of time. Or he could read the fun, silly, kind of outrageous Larry Gonick series, learn a lot of history really quickly, and then he hung out and colored the rest of the time. Again, he turned out to be extraordinary. What did we do? We got him to be a great reader. I asked him a lot of questions, got him thinking and so forth. That’s all you need.
So basically, it’s so simple. That’s why it saddens me that most children go to school and I would say are damaged unnecessarily because they could be learning a lot. So, lots of reading, lots of thinking, lots of talking. If your child’s school is doing that, fabulous. If they’re not, do it at home. If you feel more comfortable having a tutor do that, that’s okay. But, I think most parents can learn to support a culture of reading, thinking, and talking — not a big deal.
Writing, the next thing — If at some point you want to teach your child the basics of writing, you could have a tutor for that. Sometimes the transition from non-reader to reader is labor intensive. You could have a tutor for that. The transition from non-writer to writer. You could have a tutor for that. But beyond that, once your child knows basic writing, then just like with reading, provide lots of opportunities to write fun, interesting things, stories. A lot of children love to tell stories. Have them writing stories.
I’m going to back up a little bit on the story telling. Reggio Emilia is this fabulous alternative education for preschools, founded in Reggio Emilia, Italy. One of the things they do prior to literacy even is they help children learn how to tell stories visually over many frames. So if you go into a Reggio Emilia classroom, there might be fifty pieces of paper for one story, where a four-year-old drew kind of like cartoons — the dragon did this and then the dragon did that and then the knight in shining armor did that, and so forth. They don’t even know how to read or write, perhaps, but they’re developing the ability to create long narrative trains.
I think that getting them to tell stories visually even prior to writing is a powerful way to get them to be creators. So the reading is good in terms of incoming. But now with writing you are getting them to create output.
Start visually, get them to be fabulous storytellers. Of course put their stories all over your house. Celebrate their stories. Listen to their stories. Help them develop ever more elaborate and complex stories. When they read and understand stories you can start talking about what did the author do and why. And when you tell your story, do you want to do it this way or that way. Get them thinking actively as a creative being trying to figure out how to tell a better story and so forth.
But again, lots and lots and lots of this. They should be telling lots of visual stories and once they learn to write then get them to tell lots of written stories. So that by the time they’re twelve or thirteen [they know a lot]. Learning is simple. The more learning you do, the better you get at it. If I skate a lot I’m going to get good at ice skating. If I play chess a lot you get good at chess. When I look at what you can do either in a homeschool / unschool environment or in say an alternative school that supports and encourages lots of reading and writing… Malcolm Gladwell famously talked about 10,000 hours to be world-class in something (in his book Outliers: The Story of Success). And there have been quibbles about is that true exactly or not. But practice is helpful regardless of the truth or the 10,000 hours figure. But if your child is spending, say, 5 to 10,000 hours before the age of 13 reading and writing, compare that to a child that goes to school and perhaps has a cumulative amount of 2 to 3,000 hours of reading and writing. If they just go to school and do a little bit of reading and writing, then go home and watch screens… Any kid who reads and writes for 15,000 hours by the age of 15 is going to be much more developed that read for 1 to 2,000 hours. You can never do enough. Reading and writing: lots until the age of 13. And it’s not that hard. It’s fun and easy and creative.
And things like punctuation, grammar, spelling: Once your child wants to write then you can start to introduce more and more of the conventions of English. Once they want to write, then at some point they’ll want to publish. What does publishing mean? It could mean a blog, it could mean a letter to Grandma, it could mean an email to someone, it could mean an Amazon book review. Once they are generating prose, then we can talk about well, just like you don’t want to look funny when you go out in public, you don’t want to write funny when you go out in public either, when you publish. So, once they are churning out lots of prose, you can coach them while they’re turning it out — sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, all of that. The real thing is to get them to write so much that they really are motivated to improve it because they have something to say that they want the world to hear. They want to be impressive. And at that point, it’s relatively easy to teach the mechanics.
Also, if they’ve been reading a lot they will have sophisticated sentence structure, a sense for how colons and semicolons and so forth are used. The more they are a reader, the easier it is to teach the mechanics of writing. One of the most difficult things to teach the high school level is to teach somebody how to write a sophisticated paragraph if they’ve never read anything but textbooks. All the textbooks have been dumbed down so they’re all banal. And if that’s all the child has ever read plus a few fantasy novels, it’s almost impossible to get them to write an excellent analytical essay. They just don’t have the prose styles in front of them.
So reading a ton makes writing easy. Write a ton. Tell stories visually and then write a ton. By the age twelve, thirteen, or whatever, your child will be a truly extraordinary, world-class reader and writer. They’ll be able to think, talk, read, write, speak — boom. If you need a few tutors to help here and there, not a big deal. Way less than $3,000 a year. If you can’t do it as a single parent or something, if you could possibly form a co-op, where you get four or five or six parents together who are aligned and all of you together hire some parents who are bright, maybe young college grads, or maybe retired professionals, who love kids, love learning. When I hire teachers, I don’t care if they’re credentialed. For the most part I avoid hiring credentialed teachers. Credentialed teachers have been taught to teach. I want interesting human beings for my kids to be around where the interesting humans being think talk, read, write, engage, excite, inspire. My number one standard whenever I hire teachers is do I want my child around that human being. And part of that is intellectually curious and active. Beyond that, let’s just get whoever can help get the reading and writing, thinking, talking, listening cranked up.
That’s the super-simple recipe for up to age thirteen, for everything except mathematics. I’m going to talk about math now in a little bit.
All of this is based on an essay I wrote several years ago called How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education for $3,000 or Less Per Year.
So mathematics is different because while there are some students who spontaneously have a real love for math — e.g. the philosopher Gauss was apparently correcting his father’s arithmetic at the age of three — the number of children who are spontaneously really adept and lovers of mathematics is relatively rare. If your child is that, I would say if you’re not very mathematically inclined, get him a math tutor, somebody who loves math. Forget math teacher. For me, you want someone who loves math, who thinks mathematically, makes sense of the world mathematically, who loves logic games, and have your mathematically-talented child around that kind of person early and as much as possible.
If your child is more on the kind of normal spectrum where they don’t have a negative or positive opinion math necessarily (and when your child is very young, you probably don’t know), I very much encourage logic games, really for all children.
Certainly, chess is a logic game. Checkers is easier for younger children. Go is a very sophisticated magic game. There’s a game called Mastermind that younger children can play. Checkers is probably easier than Mastermind. Set is a really fabulous pattern-recognition game. There are many sorts of games like that that are designed to get your children to think logically.
I would play them as a family. It’s not about competition, except unless it’s fun and silly competition. Again, just with reading and writing, no heaviness, no anger, no eager. You’re just a fun family, enjoying life, and one of the things you do as a family is you play logic games together. You think about the best move and how to strategize the best move and that sort of thing.
You can also by the way do great language games. As they get older, Scrabble and so forth is great. But you want your child to have the experience of thinking about the best move logically to be, just as with reading and writing, a normal part of what the family does.
In addition, the one exception to no screen time is: I’m a big fan of programming as a way to develop logical thinking skills. The Logo programming language — there are variants of it — you can learn to program logically on the screen. There are also Lego Logo robots where you can program a little robot to go all over the kitchen. So very young children, four or five, can program these robots. Four steps to the left, ten steps down, whatever, you can have them do patterns all over the kitchen, the house.
Logical programming, logical games, I see those as really important prerequisites to developing mathematical ability. And just as with reading and writing, make it part of life. At some point you may want to get more into mathematics with your child. Again, my perception is that there’s no rush. If you’re providing your child with a really rich environment you don’t need to be in a hurry. Most of school time is wasted. If you got your child playing lots of logic games and doing logical programming, such that their minds were well developed to reason through things, you could start them doing arithmetic as late as seven, eight, nine, ten.
The founder of the Sudbury school — Sudbury schools are an alternative school chain — they believe in not teaching children something until they demand to learn it. Daniel Greenberg is the founder’s name. He tells a story about a group of students who at the age of 12 or so had demanded that they learn mathematics. They had never had any math before that. And he finally agreed, okay, sounds like you’re serious, and he says — and it sounds quite plausible — that they learned all of basic elementary school math within a few months at the age of twelve or thirteen.
So if your child is ready to learn, they can learn a lot quickly. When I hear stories like that I always think, and so why were they forcing them to do things day in and day out before then, often training them to hate math above all?
I would say with the logic games and so forth, make it fun, make it interesting and some of those can shift into math games. I would say this is one place where if you’re not mathematically adept yourself it’s probably worth getting a tutor. But the tutor is not somebody to teach them math; it’s somebody who loves math games. And so they can transition them from logic games and programming to kind of playing with numbers.
There’s a wonderful organization in south Florida called IMACS (Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science) that I used to work with when I did the Winston Academy and they have some absolutely brilliant math games. They have after school math enrichment program. Their founder Burt Kaufman has taken many teams to the national math championships. So truly world-class math education. But one of their key approaches for elementary school-aged children is that they have very mathematically-talented people teaching kids in these enrichment classes these math games, thinking numerically, things like magic squares and how to recalculate them and so forth.
This would be the single best investment if you want to spend some money, is to invest in somebody who can train your child how to think mathematically and have fun at it. At some point that person may want to teach your child the times tables and that’s fine, but at that point the times tables is a tool for them to learn how to think mathematically so they can solve these problems more effectively. And just like you can learn intelligence by means of lots of reading and writing, if you have somebody who is really adept at training mathematical thinking by means of these kinds of math-game-like interactions you’re way ahead of the game.
So ideally you’ve done a spectacular job training your child how to read and write, think, talk, speak, listen, by the age of twelve or thirteen. And ideally you’ve done a lot of logic games and programming when they’re young. And finally, maybe at the age of six, seven, eight, you’ve found this really creative math tutor who can get them involved in translating their logical thinking to mathematical thinking by means of logic games, transitioning into math games.
And at some point, students really crave a different environment. I’m going to shift and talk about the hormones a little bit. In traditional society, at the age of thirteen or so, children had a right of passage and then were often considered part of the adult community. Sometimes young men would have to and hunt their first deer alone or something. The hormonal shift into adolescence really changes the kind of social desire. Obviously they develop more of a sexual interest. There’s a relation to status and hierarchy within the tribe, we’ll call it, and that changes. I find they often develop a different kind of moral seriousness. Younger children can be morally serious, but as they hit adolescence, this kind of a deeper resonance and more of a social dimension to their moral seriousness. So what you want is to get your child to an extraordinary foundation in reading and writing and math, and have confidence and initiative and so forth, by the age of adolescence. And at that point, it’s time to really think about where you and your child are really going to go with all of this.
Every child is different. At the Khabele-Strong Incubator, I often describe our school as about 1/3 intensely academic, 1/3 intensely entrepreneurial, and another 1/3 kind of creatives — we are encouraging them to become in some sense creative professionals. I always say you can still be a poor starving artist, but in today’s economy if you’re a really talented creative graphic designer, designer, video producer, that sort of thing, there are a lot of interesting and often lucrative careers possible.
At that age, you might have a sense in addition to everything I’ve said, of course you want your child to have been exposed to lots of rich experiences, e.g. travel, nature, camping. Things like science and history should be fun, so never didactic, but they should have been reading and thinking and talking and going to museums. Again, you as adults are modeling, so if the parents are talking about ideas and this cool thing in science, that thing in the news — you want to manifest this fascination with the world that you want your child to have. So on top of the reading, writing, and math, just immersed in the coolness of history and science and news with no heaviness around learning at all.
You’re going to have just a knock-your-socks-off, totally amazing kid at thirteen.
And it’s time to begin to just think, no need to commit to one direction, but does it look more like your child is going to be interested in serious academics and college. Sometimes it’s totally clear. I’ve seen kids at thirteen where they’re an entrepreneur, no doubt about it, that’s what they’re going to do. In some cases their creative drives are so overwhelming, maybe they just draw all the time, maybe they just play music all the time, maybe they’re just fascinated with video.
Whatever it is that your child is really into, now you want to start being a little bit more destination focused in terms of customizing your child’s education.
So one way to look at this, should be obvious, but you never know, what does your child naturally gravitate to when they are left to discover things on their own? What do they do for fun? When I’m doing intake interviews for the Khabele-Strong Incubator, I ask a lot of questions about their relation to learning and so forth, but one of the most important questions is what does your child do for fun?
I used to practice Tai Chi. You go where things naturally go. Why fight nature? So observe what your child loves. If your child has had a healthy environment and healthy peer relationships you should see what your child does spontaneously, and it shouldn’t be watching TV or just playing video games all the time. At that point your child should be reading, thinking, talking, drawing, engineering, Legos, building things, programming.
Of all the incredible opportunities you’ve exposed them to, some will most likely appeal more than others. It could be physical. There are some kids who are natural athletes. That’s wonderful, that’s their destiny.
There’s a book called The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, and that talks again about identifying your child’s genius. You want to do that from the time that they’re young, but as they hit adolescence it becomes more distinctive.
At that point you want to think about mentors for your child’s specific kind of genius. If they are an artist, maybe you want to devote more time to the arts side. If they are a mathematician or programmer or scientist you want to give them real development there. If they’re a writer, get them a serious writing tutor. So at this point you want to figure out what you’re going to do in terms of minimal required for college and what you’re going to do in terms of helping your child’s strengths, make them absolutely the best possible being that they can be in their strengths. And I would focus first on their strengths and then sort of see how you want to broaden opportunities by means of the college admission option.
So for instance, if they are a brilliant creative type and want to go to certain kinds of art and design schools, typically the less prestigious ones, they don’t need extremely high SAT scores.
There’s something called Full Sail University, which is a large for-profit university in south Florida. I’ve known people who have gone there and they’ve actually had positive things to say about it. I don’t mean to say that I’m too surprised, but some for-profit universities have a negative reputation. Full Sail University does not require a lot of academic demands, so as long as your child is high level basic skills and that’s what they want to do, they will have that option.
On the other hand, if your child wants to go to the Rhode Island School of Design, that’s a very rigorous academic process, so they need to develop themselves academically. They need to get the SAT scores up there. They should take a few AP courses as well as have a spectacular portfolio. So I would say around early adolescence, based on your child’s aptitudes and loves, explore what kinds of options you want to prepare your child for. Because you’re going to want to know, is it important that they pass a few AP courses? If so, they will need a certain level of academic rigor that may not be necessary if they’re going to be an entrepreneur or creative type.
And if they do need that academic rigor that you might need to start real tutors or send them to a school that can provide them with that level of academic preparation. They’ll have the foundation. It won’t be a big deal. There might be a little bit of a transition if you put them into a conventional school right away. But that’s the time to make the decision in terms of what kind of academic march and what kind of specific academic training is needed. The most alternative approach, even if they’re going to the Ivy League, if you think that’s an appropriate path for them, is crank up the SAT by reading, writing, math. They should be reading lots of very serious, difficult, classic texts. They should be thinking, talking, reading, writing about these texts.
And again, St. John’s Great Books coming out in me, but it may be contemporary science instead of classic texts. That’s okay. But, in order to crank up their SAT verbal scores, really serious reading and writing. Mathematics: they should be working with a real serious mathematically-talented tutor and/or taking a serious mathematics class to develop mathematical problem solving, so it will show up well on the SAT. If they want the option to go to MIT they should be on a path to be doing at a minimum AP Calculus, if not much more advanced mathematics.
Again, if you’re not wasting time in school, you can take your child’s loves and have your child go well beyond the standard. But you need to figure out what that is, and how to build those strengths, and how not to waste your child’s time with irrelevant sorts of distraction like regular school.
So finally you’ve developed your child on this foundation. You’ve picked the strengths. You have the mentors. In addition to deciding whether you’re going to do APs and the SAT or not and at what level, then the big thing is helping your child to do real projects. Going back to the notion that children in traditional cultures had this recognition of some level of adult responsibilities in their communities, I think it’s key to healthy adolescence that you give your child some level of real responsibility.
Benjamin Franklin launched his professional career at the age of twelve or thirteen or so, as did Andrew Carnegie, John Muir, Thomas Edison. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries in the US and in much of the world, teenagers had pretty much adult level responsibility since the start of their lives.
One of the biggest flaws in our civilization is the infantilization of adolescence. I encourage young people at the age of twelve or thirteen to look at real world-class excellence — writing, software, business, drama, music, whatever they are — and aspire to be a top performer. It can take them 10,000 hours or four years or whatever, but it’s not about school. It’s not about getting an A. It’s not about getting 20 credits or whatever. It’s I believe in you; I love you; I think you’re fantastic; let’s see what we can do with this talent you’ve got and see how you can show the world what you’re really capable of. So I see much of the time between age thirteen and eighteen, not devoted to academics, but devoted to pursuing personal excellence in something a child loves with a mentor who is skilled at the technical proficiency and also knows and loves the child.
I’ll give one more anecdote on that and then I’ll begin to wrap up. There’s a book called Extraordinary Educators: Lessons in Leadership and it’s about an education professor who looked at a cheerleading team in Kentucky that always won the national championships or a debate team in Texas that always won the state championships. He said, it’s not the water. What are these coaches doing better? And in every case he found coaches who clearly cared about their children, their students who they were working with. They clearly set very high standards. We’re going to be the best, world-class, and we’re not even going to ask whether we can do it — we are. And then finally they have the technical proficiency to coach them there.
Likewise, you want to select mentors for your child where that person loves and cares about your child, that person sets world-class standards, and that person knows how to coach your child to world-class standards. So you’ve decided on the level of academic training (SAT and AP) built on the foundation you developed when the child was younger. You’ve created, you’ve identified your child’s areas of interest. You have him or her working with a mentor who loves, sets world-class standards, and can develop proficiency. And you maintain healthiness, love, confidence for your child and can keep them away from negative influences.
With all of that done, you will help launch your child to an extraordinary life.
The cost is largely for some tutors here, some tutors there. If you can do most of this yourself the less need for tutors. Again, if tutors cost too much and you can’t do it on your own, try to get together with other families and try to create a co-op spontaneous school. I also help people start alternative schools. In some places there are a lot of a la carte educational options that are kind of learning. So say, if you can’t afford a math tutor, some places have math programs for homeschooling programs where they just have great math classes. You want to be in control of things so you can pick and choose how to craft pieces given your lifestyle, given what you can afford, given your personal skills and talents, craft all of this so that you can give your child truly extraordinary opportunities.
I think that as we develop more options for parents including tutors who think this way, including homeschool options, including alternative schools, including in some cases vouchers and educational savings accounts and tuition tax credits and diverse sort of policy approaches, I believe we can allow more and more families of all socioeconomic classes the opportunity to provide their children with truly spectacular educations so that we can bring the genius of every child to it’s greatest manifestation and I would very much love to get as many people to that point as possible in the next few years and decades.
So that’s a long ramble. I was only going to go an hour and I went a little bit over an hour, but I’m going to pause and see if there are any questions.
[1:06:50 to end]
Question & Answer Session
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