Odyssey of the Mind and Homeschooling

tricycle 200I’ve been involved in the creative problem solving program, Odyssey of the Mind, for the past four years. When I read the following, I was immediately struck by how many of these skills children learn participating in Odyssey of the Mind.

PDK International :

Educators and parents have what I consider to be a reasonable sense of what students should learn to prepare them for productive and successful lives. For four consecutive summers, I surveyed a sample of middle-level teachers to determine their views on the specific skills that students need prior to entering adult employment. The prioritized list of their responses follows:

1. Critical-thinking skills

2. Problem-solving strategies and effective decision-making skills

3. Creative-thinking processes

4. Effective oral and written communication skills

5. Basic reading, mathematics, and writing abilities

6. Knowledge of when and how to use research to solve problems

7. Effective interpersonal skills

8. Technology skills

9. Knowledge of good health and hygiene habits

10. Acceptance and understanding of diverse cultures and ethnicities

11. Knowledge of how to effectively manage money

12. Willingness, strategies, and ability to continue learning

While 9 and 10 aren’t necessarily intrinsic to the OM program, I think any program that meets 10 out of the 12 skills is worth looking at. (Although the year we had a Muslim family and a very fundamental Christian family on the same team made an interesting year for the coach.) This is just a brief summary of what student get out of the program:

Odyssey of the Mind:

How do students benefit from participation? In Odyssey of the Mind, students learn at a young age skills that will last a lifetime. They work in teams so they learn cooperation and respect for the ideas of others. They evaluate ideas and make decisions on their own, gaining greater self-confidence and increased self-esteem along the way. They work within a budget, so they learn to manage their money. They see that there’s often more than one way to solve a problem, and that sometimes the process is more important than the end result.

I really do think it’s a great program although we have had a few rough spots here and there.

One of our problems is that homeschool teams are limited to five teams per membership while schools are allowed one team per problem per division per membership. For most schools, this works out to ten teams per membership. When I requested the reason why non-school teams (this includes community teams such as Boy Scouts) were limited in this respect, I thought the response was once again indicative of common misconception’s about homeschooling and learning in general.

Community groups are limited because the organization wants OM to be part of the school curriculum, a critical part of the learning process. See, important learning only happens in the classroom. If it isn’t done in the classroom, then the groups that form are only interested in winning rather than learning.

The reason why homeschoolers aren’t under the same rules as schools is because OM is worried about homeschoolers stacking teams to create “dream teams” for competition. Win a couple of spelling bees and see what happens?

This is the reality we’ve faced the past four years. I have never had more than two kids return to compete from the previous year. (Teams consist of 5 to 7 students.) Browse the OM newsletters and you’ll read over and over again about the number of teams where members have been together all through high school or even since elementary school. What’s the advantage? They don’t have to spend the first three months team-building each year.

We don’t have try-outs, we take who ever sticks around. Many schools have try-outs for OM because of limited resources. Other schools limit participation as part of the Gifted and Talented program. I was told that in Texas, OM and Destination Imagination are both under the Gifted and Talented program at the state level. Many of the public school teams are actually from magnet schools, not a place where you find your everyday curriculum. So who has the stacked teams?

Our teams practiced on my driveway, thank God for Texas weather in January and February! We generally don’t have easy access to the “free” items that can be used without counting toward the overall cost such as media equipment or even a dolly. No art room to scavenge for supplies or a library down the hall to research ideas. No daily meetings to practice spontaneous. We have kids who would not have been allowed to compete in OM in public school. I know because I have had several who were in public school the previous year.

But we do have one major advantage. The families that commit to OM recognize OM for what it is, meaningful learning. The kids do all the problem solving. Parents are not allowed to give any ideas, much less do the work for them. By the time January and February come around, our families have no problem making it a part of their curriculum. We’re using the OM competition exactly the way the organization wants it to be used and we are financially penalized.

In the email response I received, I was told that they didn’t want people to be forming teams just to do OM. It goes back to the idea of stacking a team. That really puts homeschoolers in a bad position since that’s exactly what we do. We get together with other families so that our kids can form a team. If we want to have a literature discussion group, we get together another group of families. The groups aren’t going to consist of the same families from activity to activity. But for some reason, OM considers this important.

Given that OM is a program to encourage kids to think outside the box, the organization seems to be limited by some boxy thinking itself. Apparently, it wants to be taken seriously as a learning method and believes that this can only be done in the context of a formal school setting. But I’m pretty sure schools aren’t substituting an OM period for English or math, especially given the emphasis on testing and NCLB. Yet when people use the program the way they seem to want it to be used, they view them with suspicion since it’s not part of the established system. Does something not make sense here?


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