Parents of non-traditional learners advocate for open education

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While Thomas Edison is often lauded as the most prolific American inventor, his mother, Nancy Edison, and how she fostered an open education and an open mind in her son is often overlooked.  When a headmaster labelled Edison as being 'addled,' slow, and unteachable, his mother disagreed and decided to withdraw her son from school and teach him at home.  She knew her son was a bright, curious, creative child who thought divergently yet was often disorganized, disruptive, and hyperactive; today he would most likely be diagnosed as having ADHD.  

Thom Hartmann has suggested, in his book The Edison Gene, that people like Thomas Edison may hold immense value to human evolution and possibly the key to survival of the human species due to their open mind and creativity, despite symptoms or a diagnosis of ADHD.  Instinctively Nancy Edison knew that her son had tremendous potential and that his creativity and inventions had immense value.  She encouraged her son to learn by doing.  And she never  considered her son's hearing impairment to be a barrier either.

Years later, Thomas  Edison recalled, "my mother was the making of me" and credited her for believing in him and his profound creative abilities.

Reflecting on Thomas Edison and his education, we are reminded how much children, particularly our own, can be a source of motivation for an open education and an open mind.  Roger Hargreaves may have always wanted to draw cartoons for a living, but it wasn't until his six-year-old son Adam asked what a tickle looked like that the idea of the Mr. Men and Little Miss children's book series took shape.  

Similarly Mel Stuart would never have directed the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory unless his ten-year-old daughter Madeline had been obsessed with reading Roald Dahl's book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and asked him to make a movie about it. 

Roald Dahl, the children's writer, warrants special attention on how much a child can be a source of motivation for an open education and an open mind. Though Dahl is widely known for being a much beloved children's author, he is far less known for his role in treating his son Theo's brain injury and his contributions to neuroscience. Dahl's son was four-months-old when his baby carriage was struck by a taxi in New York City in 1960; baby Theo suffered a traumatic brain injury, cerebral damage, and soon developed secondary hydrocephalus, or commonly known as water on the brain.

After his son's accident, Roald Dahl almost exclusively took the initiative of finding an unorthodox approach and solution to his son's hydrocephalus condition.  He refused to accept the status quo. Instead, he read widely on his son's condition and sought to understand the ramifications, even though he had not taken or formally studied science since his Repton boarding school days.

The family returned to England.  Roald Dahl took his son to see Kenneth Till, a neurosurgeon at Great Ormond Street Hospital.  He consulted with British toymaker Stanley Wade about hydraulic pumps as a way to create a shunt valve, eventually the Wade-Dahl-Till (WDT), for his son. The Wade-Dahl-Till valve worked to alleviate cranial pressure, which significantly affected the treatment of pediatric hydrocephalus.  Yet the Wade-Dahl-Till valve would never have been come to fruition if it wasn't for Roald Dahl's persistence, open thinking, or without sharing his ideas and knowledge—and having them be accepted by Stanley Wade and Kenneth Till.

What is remarkable about these parents and others is that their insights and innovations helped to usher in a new era: where children provided the motivation or the ideas for an open education, an open mind, and action.

Nancy Edison, Roger Hargreaves, and Mel Stuart believed their children had bright, creative ideas, and that such ideas could possibly affect positive social change.  Dahl, too, believed that goodness would prevail from his son's tragedy.  These parents were intrinsically motivated.  They learned to trust their intuition and never to stop learning, creating, and exploring ideas.  While Edison, Hargreaves, Stuart, and Dahl lived in an era where ideas flowed, yet these ideas flowed in an age of print, film, radio, and television.

Today we live in a new age:  a world of digital innovation and creativity with open source and open content.  There are thousands, if not millions, of examples of parents (and children) turning to the Internet to affect positive social change with open content and open source.  Sal Khan, for instance, has affected social change by creating open content for everyone; Sal Khan, a hedge fund analyst in Boston, began tutoring his cousin in New Orleans when she started to struggle with algebra via the Internet.

For Khan, tutoring his cousin was a labor of love, a desire to help with his cousin's math skills.  Khan Academy eventually evolved from the tutoring, but the idea of an open education and an open mind bubbled from his intrinsic motivation and a personal, family relationship with his cousin.

Like Sal Khan, first-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles, a Northern California lawyer and mother of three, was motivated to pick up a camera and use the Internet to document the school-related struggles her children faced with homework, headaches, and panic attacks.  Like Khan, Abeles has taken the idea of an open education and an open mind to the forefront of the American educational system that is often devoid of play, creativity, and innovation with her website End the Race to Nowhere.  Her documentary film, Race to Nowhere, has been making headway and gaining momentum across the US.  Abeles and other parents have spread their ideas of an open education and open mind further by creating digital "learning webs" or digital networks of parents, professionals, and repositories of freely accessible information.  

Carolyn K., founder and director of Hoagies' Gifted Education Page, is an example of a parent who is spreading ideas by creating a network for gifted parents due to her children. 

These are just a few of the countless examples of parents creating such digital networks with blogs, wikis, support forums, websites, open source—such as MIT's Scratch, to spread ideas, spark creativity and innovation. These parents and advocates of an open education on Ted Talks or SchoolForge, for instance, want children to take control of their learning, creativity, and to share their ideas. From Sir Ken Robinson to Massimo Banzi—who helped to invent a tiny, open source microcontroller—ideas about curiousity, creativity, and learning are being spread, shared, and creating a new era in open education, open content, and open source.

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Carolyn Fox is an educator, librarian, historian, and an un/homeschooling mother. She lives in Massachusetts with her UK husband and son.


A good proof of the benefit of home education. Home education is stricktly forbidden in Sweden. Some families leave this country due to that. Thank You for usefull information!

Thanks for writing this, Carolyn! Gifted Homeschoolers Forum is all about supporting parents through advocacy, support and education. Parents are generally the experts on their own children.

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