Am I Even Doing This Right?

Do You Worry About Quality?

It’s a common worry. But, there is a solution and it all starts with courage and a belief that you can make it better as you go.

Our Story

When we started homeschooling, we worried about quality, too. But, experience fueled our belief that we could make it better as we went. So, we mustered up our courage and began our journey. In retrospect, it was a great way to begin.

But, let me back up a bit and explain how we arrived at this belief.

Our better as you go belief came about in two different ways. First, our experiences in software development had given us years of practice designing, assessing the quality of, and improving processes (and products) over time. We were used to prototyping imperfect solutions, seeing them as starting points, and improving them. Also, when my son was younger, motherhood seemed more than a bit alien to me. I worried and obsessed about getting it right. Consequently, I read, and read, and read dozens of parenting and self-help books in an effort to become a better parent. Finally, after reading Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, I realized that parenting is an adventure in vulnerability and all we can do is our best.

Whether it is software or parenting:

It’s all about making things better as you go along.

Since it didn’t have to be perfect, we were encouraged to dive into homeschooling—come what may. To help, we adopted a variety of improvement practices from the tech industry. Meanwhile, I read (and continue to read) book after book about education and educational philosophies.

At one point, I read about making learning visible and Reggio Emilia (an educational philosophy from Italy that began after World War II). Visible learning was an aspect of the Reggio Emilia improvement process as well as a way to celebrate learners and learning. More importantly, I could see a connection between their practices and my own visual storytelling hobby.


Visual Storytelling

Visual storytelling—putting together stories through photo and words—had been a longtime hobby of mine. Before we homeschooled, it had become a profession, too (I wrote for Photoshop Elements Techniques Magazine and blog). I liked how visual stories helped us discover, celebrate, and calibrate our lives. I liked how revisiting our stories gave us opportunities to make sure we were as engaged in life as we wanted and focused on what mattered to us. It was awesome what our visual stories did for us. But, I didn’t grasp that it might help our homeschooling efforts until I read that book about Reggio Emilia (that I mentioned, above).

Through the book, I learned that Reggio Emilia teachers collect related learning artifacts and observations for a year-end presentation. The presentation is shared publicly with students, their families, and interested local communities and is used to:

  • Invite participation (especially, of family members)
  • Invite further reflection (for those involved in learning)
  • Celebrate the learner, the learning, and the work
  • Build collective (social) knowledge
  • Assess the work/achievements of a student (or group of students)

The presentation serves as a portfolio of student learning and the learning process—and it’s a great way to know where you are compared to where you’d like to be with regards to learning.

However, I noticed a downside, too. These presentations were:

  1. Created once a year (usually)
  2. Large, wall-hanging presentations (and not so mobile)

But, I figured that if I could create mini presentations—visual stories—every few weeks that could fit into a photo album, I could bring visible learning practices into our improvement process. Which leads me to our improvement practices.

Our Improvement Practices

As I mentioned, our experiences as engineers guided much of our thinking when it came to our approach. Consequently, various tech practices found their way into our homeschool, including:

  • Morning Meetings: Originally, we modeled our meetings after Scrum Meetings—a practice of agile development within the software industry. Each morning, we shared about our work effort, obstacles, and plans for the day during our meeting. However, after reading about the Assemblea (another Reggio Emilia practice), we decided to alter our meeting slightly. Now, we lead with a discussion/conversation to establish what’s on Duncan’s mind currently. The purpose of the conversation is to create a stage for ideas, theories, and opinion to be expressed and explored. Then, we finish up our talk with the bit about effort and obstacles.
  • Observation: We observe (and document) learning in the moment and over time so that we can make informed adjustments to processes and our plan. Observation is an integral part of our improvement efforts.
  • Retrospectives: Through weekly and yearly retrospectives, we consider what worked, what didn’t, and where to go next. Weekly, we collaborate to interpret our observations, consulting with others (friends, family, and other homeschoolers) when it makes sense to broaden our perspective and learning opportunities.
  • Visual Storytelling: I keep and display a scrapbook that centers on learning and shares slices of everyday learning, works in progress, projects underway and emerging, and a record of student ideas, observations, and artifacts. This presentation is always available and updated every few weeks, offering a bit more granularity on various projects than the year-end presentation. It helps everyone stay in the loop about the learning and the learning system, in terms of what is being learned and the quality of that learning.

How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right?

A worry that both seasoned and new homeschoolers share is, “Am I doing this right?” We’re no exception. After all, grades—an evaluation tool common in traditional schools—are of minimal value for homeschoolers. The homeschool context doesn’t offer much opportunity for peer-to-peer comparison. Personally, even if grading fit our context, we’re a bit biased against grades (and we’re not alone).

Using grades as an evaluation tool is problematic. A grade—as a number of items you got wrong or right on a given assignment—is fairly limited in scope and precision when it comes to measuring learning and knowing. Likewise, grades averaged over a longer term have a way of sending the wrong message about mistakes. Through grading, you carry mistakes forward as demerits—even if these mistakes resulted in targeted learning. Consequently, we don’t grade. When Duncan makes a mistake, he tries again, and again, and again if necessary. He persists until he understands a thing. This means he’s incentivized (motivated) by learning rather than a grade. Finally, I believe that all evaluation is subjective at its core, but grades offer up a false sense of objectivity.

So then, without grades how can you know you’re doing a good job?

This is where our improvement practices and visual storytelling really shine. Instead of grades, we’ve found observation and reflection to be the best tools for evaluating learning and our learning system. We use:

  • Learning objectives to remind us of our destination
  • Observations, reflections, and visual stories to give us our current location

In other words, we think about and talk it over, deliberating and determining if learning and the learning system are up to our personal standards.

By making learning visible through our displayed scrapbook, we’re able to see what worked well and didn’t in a way that transcends reflection. It provides hard evidence, a record, of what was and what is. When compared to our learning objectives, our scrapbook helps us know what we’re doing right and what we need to improve. Moreover, it helps us track process, learning, and the learner in a way that memory can’t, shoring up memory and recall with documentation. Our scrapbook is a living, visible record we can use to assess and improve the system.

For us, visual storytelling along with frequent observation, reflection, and discussion is how we determine if we’re doing a good job. When we’re satisfied with what Duncan is learning and the quality of that learning, we stay the course. When we’re not, we tweak the system, making it better as we go.

An Idea to Try

If you find yourself wondering whether you’re doing things right, consider keeping an observations journal or scrapbook. When you reflect back on what you’ve been up to, you might just surprise yourself about all of the amazing things you’ve done.

In the Comments Below…

Please share your thoughts, ideas, and experiences with evaluating learning—how do you know that learning and your learning systems are meeting your standards?

Thanks so much for reading, commenting, and sharing!

Wishing you many good things,

– Liz