It has been years since Liz Rayment had her epiphany about her sons’ learning — “you have to find a pathway that fits your kid” — but she can trace it to two very specific experiences:

At winter break of her oldest son’s (Clayton’s) second grade year, she was summoned to the principal’s office and told she had to find a different school for him. It wasn’t a disciplinary issue. It was just that every piece of paper Clayton turned in was blank and he seemed to want to spend all of his time reading Harry Potter. Reading-wise, the principal acknowledged, Clayton was way beyond the school library. “This just isn’t a good setting for him,” the principal told her. She remembers thinking, “What do you do? Where else do you go if you’re not going to go to your local school? I had no idea.” Somebody suggested Colorado Virtual Academy. The instructors there grouped learners by ability rather than age. And they took that approach for all subjects. So Clayton could be put in advance classes for math and language arts, where he was ahead of his peers, and then maybe with learners his own age in other subjects. Clayton flourished. He loved the rich content and interactive experience. “That’s the first time I realized there wasn’t really just one kind of education out there,” Rayment said. “You can pick and choose.”

The second experience involved her younger son, Chase. When Chase was in the third grade, she enrolled him in a school in another district far from home, because she was told he could leap ahead in math, a subject he thrived in. But the teacher there told Rayment she was misinformed. That Chase couldn’t jump ahead until he went through gifted and talented testing, and that couldn’t possibly happen until at least the 4th grade. Rayment pushed back, saying he’d already mastered 3rd grade math. The teacher promptly gave Chase the “end of year” test for 3rd grade math and he answered every question correctly. The teacher looked at Chase and asked, “Chase, what would you like to learn this year?” He stared back and replied, “I want to learn algebra.” That was a problem, a major problem, because that was typically a middle- school subject. But to the teacher’s credit, she found a website Chase could learn algebra on, and he spent the year in the library on that website. By the end of the year, he’d mastered the subject. “That’s what convinced me,” Rayment said. “It was free. It was online. There was no homework. He did it because he was interested. I think a lot of kids could do that.”

Now in high school, both boys remain in public schools. But both of them, along with Rayment, take a very active approach to supplementing their in-school experiences with out-of-school learning. Their out-of-school encounters revolve around the boys’ interests, including robotics competitions, science fairs and video games, and peer-to- peer learning experiences where the boys act as informal mentors for others.

Rayment took matters a step further. She formed a nonprofit — Action Works — dedicated to hands-on learning events and competitions for math and science. It isn’t just her sons who benefit but hundreds of kids from their community. The nonprofit has expanded each year and is powered by more than 400 completely unpaid volunteers, mostly parents. Their most recent event, in February 2012, saw twenty teams of high schoolers and middle-schoolers converge at the Colorado State University campus in Pueblo, CO, to compete for a shot at a national championship. The local newspaper described the competition as an event that would have made “Inspector Gadget proud.”

When we asked Rayment to reflect on her current thinking and approach to schooling and learning — in hopes it could help other parents and learners — she put her thoughts down in an insightful email:

I see schools as a mixed bag needing an overhaul. The educational opportunities schools have to offer are part of an educational buffet. In our state (Colorado), parents have the right to pick and choose, though most do not realize it. Our goal is to expose our children to learning experiences with the expectation of accumulating basic knowledge and skills (forgoing the debate on what’s basic), while having the opportunity to fully immerse in areas of interest.

I agree there are more efficient ways for students to experience learning than is currently being done in many classroom settings. Sitting and listening should yield to doing, technology and multimedia. Many students that are ahead or behind in the teacher-led class learn how to tune out to survive the day in the seat or become disruptive. I have concerns around how much of a school day is taken up by classroom management, and with homework after school, little is left for pursuit of own passions, though some never find them. Not enough time doing the things that make students lifelong learners.

I don’t think we should close schools. Perhaps we have the wrong model, grouping by age and teaching in lockstep instead of when the learner is ready. Everyone talks about differentiation but it’s a Band-Aid in large classes, if possible at all. Computers could better meet each child where they are. At the high school level, too much emphasis on league sports instead of for-fun-fitness-for-all sports. At the same time, some of the opportunities in schools are difficult and/or expensive to get elsewhere, particularly labs and other experiences that depend on equipment. My children have had some incredible teachers and some terrible ones. Like any buffet, not everything is good.

Some homeschooled and unschooled are being exposed to a wider range of learning experiences than they might have in some schools while others are getting less. I have seen unmotivated schooled and unschooled students, and wonder if it’s a consequence of not yet finding what engages the student. When you watch pre-school children they explore without any intentional or expected learning. Yet learn they do and they love it. School ruins the love of learning for so many. So maybe the unschooled are on to something. However, it requires a wide-ranging, rich environment to explore, which isn’t possible in most homes and many communities. Software can change that, though, and that’s why I’m very excited about immersive educational gaming and virtual reality where the educational part is not obvious but arises out of needing and using knowledge and skill to play and explore.

Each year we look at what our children need and cobble together learning from all parts of the buffet. Fortunately we have great administrators in our school district that are working to morph the system and improve the outcome. Though at times it’s been a test of patience, much like the seven miles of open sea to turn the Queen Mary.

After five years of this buffet approach to in-school and out-of-school learning, Chase Rayment, a high school freshman, is being pulled towards math, robotics, and video game design as pursuits he’s passionate about. What he appreciates about video game-based learning, especially in strategy games such as Portal and Civilization, is “foundering my way through it,” he said, by having to confront unfamiliar challenges but ones he’s motivated to work out. Already, he has seen the importance of experiential learning and of trying to push through issues and barriers on his own, and with others. He has observed this to be true outside the realm of video game learning, too. “I sometimes help as a mentor for the robotics events. There has to be a teacher or a parent-coach but what happens is an adult teacher or coach will jump in and do too many things for the student, instead of letting the students do their own thing. For me at least, the most important part of the learning process is thrashing around in a forward direction. Learning to cope with the frustration and still moving forward is definitely the key part.”

Liz is grateful that Chase has found something he’s interested in and for the universe of web-based resources and relationships that have fanned those interests. “You can’t make somebody learn. They’ve got to be interested. And how do you know what they’re passionate about unless they’ve been exposed to a lot of different things?”

Does she believe more parents can be pro-active and stitch together learning experiences that transcend typical schooling experiences?

Yes. Absolutely. There’s so much to choose from now, she said. But she also recognizes that that isn’t possible for far too many parents, especially in the current economic environment.

“What you need,” she said, “are after-school spaces for kids to come hang out and get exposed to different subjects, and to hands-on learning, and see what they’re interested in, so they can dwell in it.

“Isn’t that what all kids deserve?”

Action Works website: