At RTS our focus is more on learning and less on teaching. We notice that learning is natural and happening all the time. Babies learn to crawl, walk, and talk without being explicitly taught these things. They look at who and what exists in the world around them, copy and experiment with what they see, practice and learn the skills they need to grow in independence and connectivity to others (Gray). This does not mean that instruction never occurs at RTS, it does. Certain tools, such as electric saws, may not be used until a mentor provides training.
Often times a learner will requests direct instruction and mentors do prioritize such a request. Other times, instruction is embedded in a particular offering, like a chemistry experiment or math challenge. However, instruction is a relatively small part of the activity at RTS and the person doing the instructing is just as likely to be a learner as a mentor. In our learning community that values authenticity and collaboration, it’s inevitable that we’ll learn from each other. Sometimes this happens through classes and workshops, sometimes through conversations and modeling, but it’s always happening.
HOW WILL MY KIDS LEARN THE BASICS?
If something is basic knowledge that is needed in order to live successfully in this world, children typically learn it without extensive structure. Modern "Western Educated Industrial Rich Democracies" or WEIRD cultures are somewhat unique in their tendency to transfer basic knowledge in a highly structured way like schooling (Lancy). In many other cultures, it is typically assumed that the “basics” will be captured in kids’ natural learning. Similarly, at RTS we don't feel the need to force or reward children to learn something basic.
Basic knowledge and skills are defined by our current world. Whereas, in some cultures, basic knowledge includes recognition of the edible and medicinal qualities of hundreds of different flora and fauna, in our culture, it is basic to know how to navigate a computer. The particular environment in which we operate sets us up to prioritize knowledge and skills reliably and naturally based on our experiences.
On a day to day basis, this looks like learners asking others how to read or write certain words needed to play a game, trying an offered math challenge, joining a discussion group based on a book, or learning to navigate a computer by watching others. Some learners also may request help from a mentor in learning to read, write, gain math skills, or other basic skills, which we are always happy to do.
IF YOU DON'T MAKE YOUTH TAKE A VARIETY OF CLASSES, HOW WILL THEY GET EXPOSED TO NEW FIELDS? ISN'T THERE A CHANCE THEY'LL MISS DISCOVERING A PASSION IF THEY AREN'T REQUIRED TO TRY NEW THINGS?
Children today are swimming in a flood of information. They are exposed to a greater diversity of ideas, issues, cultures, facts, problems and opportunities than ever before.
Another question could be: In this staggering flood of overexposure, how will my child learn to filter what is important from the unimportant, to focus on their domains of passion, and to determine “good” information from “bad?” These are important skills for a modern children - skills they may miss if we do all the filtering for them.
Also, given the nearly limitless possibilities for what a life can look like in today's world and what a person might find to be their "calling," it seems unreasonable for our program, or any program, to claim to expose children to anything but the tip of the iceberg in terms of fields and passions. It is not our goal to expose children to as much diverse content as possible. Nor can we claim to know what the most important content is in our rapidly changing, diverse culture. Rather, it is our goal to expose children to a community full of curious, passionate learners. From engaging in this community, we hope that children maintain and grow their natural love of learning and practice timeless skills such as communication, collaboration, empathy, and reflection.
WHAT ABOUT ACADEMICS?
As for foundational literacy, please see the "basics" question.
A primary way we support the development of academic inquiry is through modeling interest in the academic world. This is embedded in our language use, the academic materials we reference, the academic pursuits we discuss in formal and informal conversation. We see academia not as a set of skills to be acquired on a certain timeline but as one of many lenses through which to see the world. It is a lens which we value and it is not the only lens which we value. As with other parts of our culture, we see that children are keen observers and take note of the spoken and unspoken values we impart through modeling. In consistently modeling our value of the academic world and scientific process we give children a powerful opportunity to explore these lenses along with us.
Sometimes the underlying concern is: "I want my children to have all doors open to them in the future and I am unsure if a self-directed environment will provide them with a strong enough academic foundation."
This is an understandable concern.
We at Rock Tree Sky also want abundant opportunities for our children. However, we question the notion that academics, as they have been traditionally defined, are truly preparing the children of the 21st century for a meaningful, stable livelihood. For this reason, compartmentalized academics are not central to our program for young learners. While at the same time we do foster an intellectual community and hold seminars for those motivated to participate. Our offerings and environment provide children the opportunity to practice communication, collaboration, design thinking, project management, and critical thinking among other essential skills. Perhaps, most importantly, because our offerings reflect the passions of the mentors rather than strictly defined academic subjects, we model a love of learning that inspires natural curiosity.
WHAT IF MY CHILD DOESN'T TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE GREAT OFFERINGS AND RESOURCES AND INSTEAD JUST PLAYS OR HANGS-OUT WITH FRIENDS ALL DAY? WHAT IF MY CHILD "DOES NOTHING?"
Mentors at Rock Tree Sky are consistently learning how to more effectively share our interests or offerings with learners in a way that feels accessible and engaging. That being said, there are some things to consider.
Children take advantage of offerings in ways that are not always visible. Children may directly participate in an offering or they may peripherally observe an offering and integrate ideas into their play. This kind of learning through informal observation and play is documented cross culturally and is far more common amongst children than learning through direct instruction or interaction with adults (Lancy). For example, a bridge building offering facilitated by a mentor may draw just a few learners but may inspire others in the sand pit to experiment with bridges, unbeknown to adults eager for signs of formal learning.
Play is children's work! Self-directed play, that is play not facilitated by adults, is important for healthy brain development (Siegel and Bryson). We do not value adult-facilitated offerings over child-directed play. So long as a child is respectful of Rock Tree Sky agreements, we do not limit play nor view it as time "wastefully" spent.
Every child will have different needs in regards to a healthy balance of play, focus-time, down-time, etc. We check in with each child periodically regarding this balance (sometimes through direct discussion, sometimes through informal conversation and observation as developmentally appropriate). We are also happy to be a part of a family discussion regarding balance and goals and will support children in any structure they would like to add to their time at Rock Tree Sky. We will not, however, use punishment or reward (however subtle), to coerce a child to participate in an activity, even if it is an activity in which they previously expressed interest.
Youth who may appear to be "doing nothing" may, in fact, be getting some needed down-time, introspection, rest, or recalibration, especially if they had years in a learning environment in which they were told what to do with their time. Mentors look for signs of distress, such as suppressed affect or other symptoms of disassociation, and will check in more frequently with youth (and parents) if their lack of engagement is concerning. However, we want to validate each child's process and be inclusive of those who may take longer than others to engage with people or activities.
ARE THERE BOUNDARIES?
Rock Tree Sky sets boundaries to create a safe, legal, and respectful environment. Students are expected to uphold certain agreements to be a part of Rock Tree Sky; we meet regularly to review our learning environment's culture and create new agreements together. To the extent that this question asks whether rules and limits on individual freedom exist, the answer is ‘yes.’
But what if we define boundaries more broadly than just as rules? Then, this question becomes an interesting one about priorities and opportunities to practice 21st century skills that students will need to grow into empowered individuals. In environments where students don’t get a say in their work loads, levels of physical activity, or collaboration styles, they don’t have as many opportunities to practice recognizing, setting, or holding personal boundaries. We recognize that these are vital life skills; as such, Rock Tree Sky is intentional in both modeling boundary management and supporting students doing the same.
IF CHILDREN AREN'T REQUIRED TO DO WORK THEY DON'T LIKE IN A LEARNING ENVIRONMENT LIKE RTS, WILL THEY HAVE A HARD TIME WITH WORK EXPECTATIONS AT HOME OR LATER IN LIFE? IN OTHER WORDS, DOES TOO MUCH FREEDOM BACKFIRE?
This is an understandable concern, particularly when we think about our children facing a work world that may be demanding and may also include strong authority figures. The question may also express concern about a permissive response to an authoritarian approach to education - neither of which are balanced.
The goal at RTS is to communicate clear and consistent boundaries the entire community has participated in creating. At RTS those boundaries are primarily relational, not based on prescribed academic tasks. However, even in this model there will inevitably be behavior expectations that feel challenging but are required for mutual support within the community.
In regards to the follow-through that is necessary to complete difficult tasks or long-term projects, there are many viewpoints as to how this develops. The factors that contribute to "stick-to-it" behaviors are numerous and may vary from child to child. What we do know is that, for some children, the standard model of education in which learners are met with low grades and disappointment when tasks are not completed does not motivate them to practice persistence. For some, it results in increased resistance and "homework wars." For others, it results in "skillful pleasing" with little genuine effort given to their work. In this way, even children earning high grades and teacher approval may not be developing the grit it takes to tackle problems or projects that are truly challenging.
While not every family or child will thrive with the freedom and responsibility afforded to them at RTS, there are others for whom it is imperative. What we explore together is how this environment can best serve your family given your child's proclivities.
YOU LET KIDS DO WHATEVER THEY WANT?
It is sometimes the assumption that if children are allowed to choose their daily activities, they will make choices that are inadequate for learning important skills. At Rock Tree Sky, we hold a different view.
We see that children have the desire to learn and are learning all the time. That said, adults don't always notice this learning. Much of the learning that occurs during childhood actually happens during play, and learning may also be internalized in ways that are personal and hard for adults to detect. (Please see Dr. Peter Gray's book Free to Learn or this article published on Psychology Today)
This includes having the desire to learn those skills that will help them to be successful adults, such as foundational literacy skills. However, in order to fulfill this natural drive, they must be in engaging environments with tools that can help them learn those skills, such as books, computers, and different specialized tools, and they must be surrounded by open, engaged, and skilled mentors, including older children. These are the circumstances we strive to provide, and in that context, we allow and support children to make the choices that feel right for them.
If mentors have concerns about a child's choices, we would discuss these concerns with the child like any other caring person in their life and help them identify and navigate any potential obstacles to the natural learning that can unfold. Likewise, if a learner has concerns about their choices and needs more support to reach expressed goals, mentors are there to make a plan with them and work with them to see it through.
Important to recognize, is that learners may have timelines for learning particular skills that are at odds with an adult's hopes. While a parent might be hoping that their child will be an early reader, a learner might not gain real interest in reading until years later. So long as there are caring adults and mentors in a child's life, helping them look out for stumbling blocks such as learning differences or trauma, the exact age at which a child learns to read may not be critical in determining their abilities later in life (please listen to the podcast following this link ).
Another concern sometimes hidden in this question is the fear of anti-social behavior. Again, we hold that humans are naturally social creatures and if there is a behavior that is not working in the community, there is a reason for it that we can assist one another in identifying and resolving. This works when there are clear expectations and healthy modeling. At Rock Tree Sky these expectations include productively engaging with the group process, caring for the space, caring for oneself, and caring for each other. Pursuits must be safe and legal. We clean the messes we make and follow a simple conflict resolution process when those messes are relational. We collaborate to build positive cultural norms rather than lists of rules.
Learners have a lot of freedom as they get clear about what they truly want to create for and of themselves. With clear boundaries and agreements, they also have the support they need to feel safe using that freedom to question, experiment, explore, and grow.
HOW DOES ROCK TREE SKY ADDRESS CONFLICT RESOLUTION BETWEEN CHILDREN?
At Rock Tree Sky, we see interpersonal conflict as a learning opportunity. We foster inclusion and resilience in the next generation by practicing compassionate communication (also known as non-violent communication) and by giving children frequent chances to exercise social emotional skills without adult intervention, an important learning opportunity they are often denied at more teacher directed learning environments.
When we see behaviors that are a part of conflict we look at what is being communicated by the behavior. Often we see children expressing social/emotional skills they are still working on. For example, flexibility or self-advocacy may be areas of growth for a child and they may express their understandable lack of social skill in that area during a moment of conflict. As mentors, we are consistently tuning in to sense the appropriate balance regarding when to give children space to work through their own conflicts and when to move in to help slow down or guide a moment of conflict. Informed by careful observation and reflection on children's interactions, mentors may work with specific children or groups of children to help them grow in needed skills through games and informal dialogue. In this, and other ways, we proactively address conflict. Perhaps, most importantly, we address conflict resolution through modeling. We believe children, and all human beings, are innately social and are motivated to learn how to interact in healthy ways in their community. We strive to express this to children in a consistent and compassionate manner, and to model this with one another. We have every expectation that our learners will grow into the mutually supportive and cooperative human beings we try to be on a daily basis.
HOW DO KIDS ADJUST COMING FROM CONVENTIONAL SCHOOLING OR RETURNING TO IT?
Kids, especially older ones, coming from conventional schooling usually have a “detox” period where they test their limits to be sure that they really aren’t going to be forced to do things or graded on their “performance.” When it turns out that there isn’t much to rebel against, boredom and positive peer pressure usually motivate them to start trying new things and engaging with the community.
Learning is always occurring. As a result, students coming from traditional schooling arrive having learned communication styles, value judgments, and assumptions about power dynamics (and their own capacities) that they then may need time to unlearn at RTS.
Students who choose to return to conventional schooling have, in their time at RTS, gained experience communicating clearly, managing their time, finding information/resources they need to achieve goals, and developed social emotional skills that will support them in navigating and responding to conflicts. Learners take these skills with them–along with the knowledge that they are choosing to shift to a different type of schooling for a reason. As a result, they usually transition smoothly.
WHAT IS ROCK TREE SKY'S APPROACH TO PHYSICAL SAFETY AND SUPERVISION?
The physical safety of children under our care is, of course, a primary consideration and we consistently update our staff training and community boundaries as new safety concerns present themselves. Additionally, in keeping with self-directed learning values, we believe children "need space—to roam, explore, get away, and experience the sense of independence and power that can only occur for children when no adult is watching." This means Rock Tree Sky mentors intentionally give children more physical and decision making space to determine their own safety limits than is typically found in schools. For example, a child might ask a mentor if climbing a tree is okay. While each adult must honor their own sense of extremes and what they can emotionally and ethically integrate, we offer these kinds of decisions back to the child whenever possible: how do you feel about climbing that tree?
Our approach to supervision and the freedom children have to move throughout the space as their interests and self-regulation lead them, means that children are not in a direct line of sight of an adult at all times. This is an important part of the culture as it is one way (though certainly not the only way) of communicating our expectation that children can manage themselves appropriately without constant supervision.
While the campus is fully fenced and mentors frequently move about the different areas of activity, this program is not appropriate for young children who have not yet developed the awareness to remain on campus unless accompanied by an adult. With parent permission, older students can gain off-campus privileges.
We have clear safety boundaries regarding tools and play things (i.e. helmets must be worn when bicycle riding and power tools can only be used under direct adult supervision). We also uphold the self-directed education value of "allowing children to play with the tools of our modern culture, such as computers, books, woodworking equipment, cooking utensils, and sporting equipment, though for some tools there may be an initial requirement of safety instruction." For example, at Rock Tree Sky children are permitted to use hammers and knives after receiving proper instruction.
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE A LEARNING COMMUNITY AS OPPOSED TO A SCHOOL?
Rock Tree Sky is a learning community for children who choose independent study or homeschooling. For some this is simply a formality that satisfies California's education laws. Their lives at home do not look much different than families with children attending traditional school. These families may never have "homeschooled" before attending Rock Tree Sky. Part of what we offer these families is guidance in order to remain in compliance with California education codes. For others, homeschooling is a big part of their home life and Rock Tree Sky is a part of a larger education plan.
In all cases, our designation as a learning community instead of a school reflects our philosophy that people are learning all the time, everywhere. We also recognize that all the adults in a child’s life, not just "teachers," enrich their learning opportunities. We challenge the conditioning that says "children's most important learning happens at school, where they are taught by 'certified' experts." We recognize and honor that in a child's family, immense learning has been happening from the time of birth and does not suddenly stop when a child reaches school age. Being a homeschool family doesn't mean that parents have to wear the formal teacher hat for children to get their needs met, though some parents may enjoy this task. It does not mean that parents need to reorganize their lives to educate their children though some are able and enjoy doing this as well. Children already learn so much from their families both about life and practical skills. Every time parents read to their children, every time they engage in a child's 'why,' every time they play a game, every time they model the tasks of managing a household, children are learning.
Additionally, in being a learning community, RTS does not require children to attend 5 days per week. Children can attend anywhere from 1-5 days per week.
WHAT IS ROCK TREE SKY'S TECHNOLOGY POLICY?
Technology and particularly computer/cell phone use is an understandably big concern for many families. Creating healthy norms and practices around technology use is an opportunity in which we want to engage children of all ages. We do not have a fixed, adult created policy but rather every year we create agreements which reflect our needs and values as a community.
One of our guiding values in regards to the use of technology that it is intentionally used at Rock Tree Sky and that these intentions are communicated. This means we do not support its use as a distraction or time filler at RTS (though we recognize without judgement that this may feel like an appropriate use at home). And while we do have weekly time alloted for gaming (one hour for each learning cohort), we do not permit first-person shooter games.
We strive to model communication regarding technology use - letting fellow learners know that we are going to shift our attention for a moment to take an important call, or snap a picture of an interesting creation, and we ask learners to practice similar communication.
In short, we see digital technology as a potentially useful tool, and consider ourselves as important guides for children in navigating their use. We neither cut children out of the decision making process regarding technology use nor remove ourselves from our roles in supporting critical thinking regarding technology.
WILL MY CHILD BE ABLE TO GO TO COLLEGE?
If that’s the direction a student chooses, yes. Colleges have been accepting students from homeschooling families and non-traditional programs for as long as colleges have existed.
When a self-directed learner decides they want to go to college, they know why they want to go. Many students unquestioningly spend thousands of dollars and several years of their lives going through college because that’s what they think they’re “supposed” to do. Intentionally entering a learning environment to accomplish a specific purpose is more likely to bring about positive outcomes.
We don’t yet have longitudinal data on Rock Tree Sky graduates, but we do have it on self-directed learning. The vast majority of the kids who want to get into college do. Having alternative forms of record keeping and evaluation has not been an impediment for kids who want to go to college. In fact, there’s a proven advantage for people whose college applications can’t be tidily ranked by GPA and academic track: a human has to actually look at their portfolio. Rock Tree Sky students document their learning on sharable platforms, such as google docs*. As a result, they typically find it easy to construct a rich portfolio.
*(Please see question HOW IS MY CHILD'S LEARNING PROGRESS TRACKED AND/OR ASSESSED? for more information)
HOW IS MY CHILD'S LEARNING PROGRESS TRACKED AND/OR ASSESSED?
Rock Tree Sky does not test our learners with quizzes, homework, exams, or essays. We find these modes of assessment limiting and unfit for measuring and understanding depths of all that is being learned at Rock Tree Sky.
We do however, value reflecting on the growth and learning of our young people. One way that we support our learners recognizing and understanding the ways that they are growing and learning is by recording observations of learning.
The practical method that we use for documenting observations of growth and learning at Rock Tree Sky is via individual Google Documents for each learner. These Google Docs are accessible for each mentor and each learner as well as his/her/their parents/guardians are also provided access and encouraged to contribute notes to these virtual journals.
The intention is to use this platform as an ongoing journal or virtual time-capsule that may be a space to record notes and save photos regarding the learning that the children engage in, the projects they create, and any significant growth that we as mentors and caregivers notice.
RTS Mentors strive to check in with and contribute to each learner's Observation Doc on a bi-weekly basis. Parents, guardians, and even the learners themselves are invited to contribute to this practice as well.
The practice of self-reflection feels meaningful in that reflection allows us to deepen our understanding of ourselves. When we better understand ourselves we can better take care for ourselves and each other.
It follows that reflecting on the activity and growth of these young learners will deepen our understanding of them and our relationships to them. Further allowing us as mentors, parents, and caregivers to better care for our kids and their unique needs. And also to better support our kids' interests and education.
WHAT OPPORTUNITIES ARE THERE FOR COMMUNITY BONDING AMONGST PARENTS AND FAMILIES?
Rock Tree Sky does not take lightly the value of community. Therefore, we offer a myriad of community bonding activities throughout the year that support family connection.
We offer events on a monthly basis including (but not limited to) parent discussion groups, potlucks, campouts, parent maker night, family work parties, and bi-annual learner expositions.