That Which is Not Seen

February 2nd, 2009

That which is seen is so easy to believe and to relate to.

But what about that which is not seen?

According to 19th century economist Fredric Bastiat, understanding “that which is not seen” is the key to understanding the true value of a situation.

Our family was recently on ABC’s Wife Swap as thenonconformist California family who have radical views on mainstream society and traditional education.” I don’t mind that introduction. I identify with it.

If you saw the episode, you will wonder why anyone would choose this for their family. You will see new mom Kerry get quite upset about us being lazy and about our lack of concern for our children’s education and about their apparent lack of education.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

First a little about Kerry. Because of the nature of the swap, all I know about her comes from our brief encounter at the table meeting and from me living her life and from what my husband Lee has told me about her. So it is possible I have her wrong. But from what I gather, Kerry is a very nice person (not seen on the show) with incredible amounts of energy. She is a non-stop machine. Almost super-human. She is constantly on the go, and she has high expectations for herself and her girls. But the thing to remember is this: She does nothing in a small way. Her reactions to what she saw in my home were often overblown, typical of her intense personality.

That said, it is true that my boys may be behind their peers in some of the academic subjects. That comes across loud and clear on the show. That is what is seen.

What is not seen is how incredibly intelligent my sons are.

First off, Nicholas was hardly even shown. If you want to see the results of this approach to education, you have Nicholas as a prime example. Not only is he very competent in academics, he is also very capable of expressing himself and his opinions in a rational and intelligent way. He did very well at standing up to Kerry with some wonderful insights about why he feels his education is superior. Instead, practically all you see of him is his fun dance.

In addition to the usual academics, Nicholas has also had the time do devote to other great projects. Like an internship in New York, starting college at 17, earning the rank of Eagle Scout and also expanding on his personal genius, which is in design. Here is an example of some of his older work:

A Heavenly College Education on an Earthly Budget

A Heavenly College Education on an Earthly Budget

He also designed the cover of Lee’s book:

Speaking of Lee’s book, Kerry bad-mouthed his book in the show, without even having read it. One of her rules that were not seen on the show was that Lee get a professional opinion of the book. They went and the professional gave the book a very favorable review. WHEW!

Speaking of Lee, I am very pleased with the way he handled Kerry. She yelled in his face a lot and didn’t give him much of a chance to have a rational conversation with her. Her loss, really. I’m just glad that he did not lower himself to yelling back at her. That’s not the way to have an intelligent conversation.

Now back to the boys. Riley really got the brunt of Kerry’s concern. He does not write much or do much math. That is what is seen. I’m not worried about it, because I know that he is a highly intelligent person and that when he is ready to, he will seek out how to do it on his own and he will do quite well.

What was not seen is that Riley is very advanced for his age.

Given the opportunity to learn on his own, he really latched on to reading. He loves, loves, LOVES to read! It is very likely that Kerry saw Riley spend hours a day reading. And then she called him illiterate?

Riley once stacked up all the books that he read in a single year. The stack was taller than himself. And that didn’t include the many library books that he had read. And you wanna know what? That was the same year Riley started reading. He was nine, and the stack included the entire Harry Potter series. If he were in school he would have been labeled stupid for starting to read late and he never would have learned to love to read.

In reality, the only place in the world where it matters what subjects are learned and when is in the traditional schools. In the real world, learning is always relevant to what is required at hand. So it is true that I would be concerned about Riley being behind if he were in school. Those bad labels can last a lifetime.

In the past two years (he’s now 11) Riley has probably read more books than most adults have read in a lifetime. And he wouldn’t have the time to read this much if he were forced to go to school every day. Kind of ironic, don’t you think?

Riley is also a self-proclaimed nerd. He loves the title and it fits him well. In addition to being a voracious bookworm, he likes to play chess, has a very high vocabulary, and likes to research stuff - anything that comes to mind.

In the Wife Swap episode, you see Kerry doing the time machine activity with Riley. This is the theme we used for school last year. It was a theme based on Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where each week we got in our phone booth and transported to other times and places to meet great minds throughout time. It was a great year. We did this with several other families. Imagine the children gleefully dialing in the number and then dashing off to the country on the enormous floor map. Excellent teaching tools. Inspiring. Fun. Great times. Riley enjoyed every week.

Then along comes Kerry, with her public school-minded approach to education. She took the fun and joyful act of learning and turned it into something painful for Riley. What you saw happening there is not Kerry teaching Riley, but testing him. How many children do you know would be happy to be put on the spot like that? Riley showed how uncomfortable he was by not even trying. In the end, he very deliberately stood on his own town and said, “Is this France?” It was not fun for him, nor was it even educational. It is obvious from that experience that Riley did not learn where France is. This was not Riley’s failure, it was Kerry’s. I asked Riley about what happened. He said, “I don’t know. I don’t like geography.” What? He spent an entire year learning and playing on that map and then he’s given one bad experience with the map and all of a sudden he doesn’t like geography? What a shame. I spend so much of my time leading my children to enjoy all kinds of learning, but then Kerry went and gave him one long-lasting lesson: geography is NOT fun. I wonder how long it will take for Riley to learn to like geography again?

On to Harrison. Well, again, not a lot is shown of him. This is probably because he is the most academically intelligent of all my children. What is not seen is that he taught himself how to read when he was four. Although he is not as voracious a reader as Riley is, he does love to read. Often, after we’ve all gone to bed, Harrison will grab a stack of picture books to read for another hour before settling in. He also enjoys lots of non-fiction books (like books on spiders or the human body) and an occasional fictional chapter book. Right now he is in the middle of the third Animorphs book.

Here’s a video from over a year ago that shows how talented a reader he is: . Of course, he’s only gotten better since then.

Harrison is also an incredible speller. When Riley is writing and calls out asking how to spell a word, Harrison spells it for him. Harrison has also been caught correcting Nicholas’ spelling. Harrison enjoys sitting on my lap while I type so he can catch my errors.

Smart, smart kid.

When I offer to do some schoolish stuff with Harrison, he will either have me read to him or he will want to do some math with me. This could mean playing a game, handling manipulatives, or making up our own math problems. What’s great is that Harrison also likes to come up with his own way of solving the problems. He finds patterns in the problems and discovers solutions.

Watch out, world, Harrison is on his way!

…And to my greatest disappointment, the show never even filmed us at our school. They got shots of Kerry at work, but what is not seen is me at work, teaching at my school.

Imagine a school where each day is an adventure. The children want to sit up front because they don’t want to miss one exciting moment. But they don’t sit for long! Soon they are happily moving about the room, involving their whole bodies in the learning experience. Matching up pictures, building things, collaborating, debating. Lots of energy in the room, lots of positive interaction, lots of fun, lots of learning. But maybe it’s a good thing Kerry didn’t try teaching my students. What if they wouldn’t want to come back!

In addition to those great school activities, we also go on lots of field trips. This is where the deepest and most memorable learning happens. For more about my school, visit

This school is based on many years of study into the best ways for children to learn. Some of the findings I have made have been around for over twenty years. This information is readily available to any school.

But the mainstream approach to education is hundreds of years old and very deeply ingrained. Traditions are hard to let go of, even if they are bad ones. Not many people are brave enough to make any real kind of change. Rather, since these studies have come out, our nation’s public schools have gotten farther away from true learning by implementing the No Child Left Behind laws – you know, those laws that don’t allow children to find their own genius and to get ahead. The crazy thing about laws like these is that they assume that if the system isn’t working it’s because we don’t have enough of it. So the answer to a bad thing is to have more of a bad thing? That just doesn’t make sense. Rather, we need to look at the very base of the situation. How does a child learn best? The true answers are great for kids, but scary for legislators.

Fortunately, in California, private schools are allowed to set their own standards. Rather than putting together a complicated set of standards where I evaluate each child in order to determine if they are above, at, or below standard, I expect great things from each of my students. That does not mean that they will all perform at levels above state standards. It means that they will work within their own personal genius and gain a sense of who they are as an individual and that they will have the opportunity to excel at those things that they are naturally gifted in.

I believe all children are gifted in some way(s) and that it is the parents’ and teachers’ responsibility to encourage those things that make that child unique. It is wholly inappropriate for a child to ignore their genius in order to get “caught up” with the rest of the children who happen to be born in the same year as themselves. This would only hamper their genius and take away from them what makes them special. I cringe at the thought.

So are my children disadvantaged? Does allowing them to fall behind the crowd a little injure them? Is it bad that my children read so much? Is it bad that they actually know how to teach themselves (you know, give a man a fish…)? Is stepping out into the real world to learn such a bad thing?

No, no, no, no, and no.

The reverse is true. I feel sorry for the children who are stuck in the box for hours a day. Sitting at the same desk. Interacting with the same children. Cut off from the real world. Reading from textbooks. Filling in bubbles. This is the lowest form of learning and it’s what you have to do for a generation of children who believe that learning is bad. Children who have no idea how to learn on their own.

In the episode, I took Krista and Brooke to a theme park to show them that learning can happen anywhere. What is not seen is how difficult it was for them to do this. Both girls are taking physics classes. At the park I tried to engage them in a discussion on physics. I do this with my children all the time. We can go on for hours. But these girls couldn’t. Krista actually asked for a teacher and a classroom. She couldn’t see how the things in her textbook apply to real life. She could not have that discussion. She demonstrated that she couldn’t think outside that box. Bummer. What a waste of time. But if it’s not actually knowledge one is after, but just grades, that’s what happens.

So remember that what is seen on this episode of Wife Swap is entertainment. There is so much more that is not seen.

I choose to set my children free.

Free to be themselves.

Free to learn.

This is what should be seen.

-Heather Martinson


You are welcome to comment, but please be respectful. I welcome discussion and am happy to hear from those who disagree with me. I am always open to learning new things. Posts that include attacks on myself or others will be removed in entirety.