If you’ve told a child a thousand times, and the child still has not learned, then it is not the child who is the slow learner.
~Walter B. Barbe
The Journal of the Lion & the Wolf
If you’ve told a child a thousand times, and the child still has not learned, then it is not the child who is the slow learner.
~Walter B. Barbe
by John Holt, published 1995
John Holt says the essence of his book can be boiled down to two words: “Trust children.” We hear echoes Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy motto (“slow down”) and Maria Montessori’s “secret of childhood.” If we trust children, what are we trusting they will do and on what basis is the trust being given?
We trust that children will make not only good choices, but the right choices with regards to where they are in their personal development, that they will engage in behaviors and follow curiosities that maximize their ability to learn about themselves and the world around them and how it works. And the basis of this trust is that children are fundamentally competent to be themselves without any additional input, guidance or motivation from parents or other adults, who at best can merely replace the child’s ego with their own.
In reading Holt, I was constantly reminded of my friend’s book, A Theory Of Objectivist Parenting, which asks the reader to consider the philosophical dilemma of how an individual who is treated as incapable and irresponsible for most of their developmental life can suddenly be expected to be a functioning adult with the snap of two fingers. Where lies the magic such that an “animal” child is transformed into a “human” man without the benefit of practice or routine in these modes of thought and action?
Holt believes that children want to learn, and that their behaviors and choices are fundamentally aimed at learning about the important functional relationships of the world around them. They choose their own goals based on their own interests and then determine what preceding knowledge they must obtain to secure their goals. The schooling method, of which Holt is skeptical, involves sequential learning from the basic to the complex, with no object for the instruction other than to master the material. But this is not interesting to most children, because the learning is divorced from a meaningful context (ie, a problem they personally want to solve) and the structuring of the learning often serves to highlight to a child how little he knows about a given field, an unnecessary bruise to a young person’s self-esteem. The result is that children often invest a lot of energy in avoiding learning, rather than engaging with the material, and what they practice is denying their own values and interests rather than gaining competence in knowledge and systems they have no desire to learn.
The ego is so central to Holt’s understanding of how children learn that it almost defies explanation how absent this concern is from most other pedagogical methods! Where did people come up with the idea that the student’s own fascination with the subject (or lack thereof) is irrelevant to the problem of learning? Why should we think it is optimal to follow any path of instruction which ignores this fundamental element? And who is truly being served by such an approach when it clearly can not be the child himself?
A related danger that Holt discusses is attempts to trick children into learning things, by teaching them without them noticing they’re being taught. If the idea is to teach people even if they don’t want to be taught, and if doing so creates resistance to learning, then it does seem logical to try to sneak and cheat the information into children’s minds. But is that respectful, and should we imagine anything else but more failure from continuing to build on such flawed premises?
Holt’s warning is again startling. Children are not aliens who think completely differently from adults. They are simply differently capable people, and their human capacity for reasoning makes it obvious to them, even when they’re very young, when they’re not being treated on the level. How disrespectful to treat another human being this way, with so little concern for their own values and well-being! Imagine trying to “trick” an adult into learning something without their permission or interest, by asking questions one already knows the answers to, or insinuating that something they don’t consider important is actually quite so. Such a person would consider it demeaning to imply they can’t figure out for themselves what deserves their attention and what does not, or that they’re not sharp enough to know they’re being fooled with, and so it is with children.
This is a rich and dense work with many pithy observations I wish I had highlighted the first time through. The author clearly admires children for their potential and their capability alike, and he helps the reader to see children not as helpless, but as empiricists, experimenters and practitioners. The hardest thing for parents and teachers to internalize from this work is the need for them to exercise self-control in light of their penchant for thinking their interventions in the life of children are so critical to the children’s thriving. It appears to be just the opposite!
by Maria Montessori, published 1936, 1982
If you’re looking for a “how-to” on the Montessori Method, this isn’t it. What this book is is an exploration of the philosophical foundations of Maria Montessori’s view of the child in society, based upon some of her historical experiences and study of related social research.
Although this book was published long ago, Montessori’s revelation appears to be, by and large, still a secret. Sadly, it is not just a cultural secret. Even in the West, and particularly the United States, where her ideas seem to have the strongest following, the parenting and educational mainstreams seem to have done little to absorb Montessori’s insights into both theory and practice. If Montessori was correct in her discovery, then it says something both appalling and demoralizing about the failure of society to integrate such important truths. So, what is this “secret”?
The secret of childhood is that it is a period of time during which the child works, not to assimilate himself into society, but to assimilate himself into himself. We hear echoes of Max Stirner (1806-1856, Germany) in Maria Montessori (1870-1952, Italy), for example, compare Stirner,
school is to be life and there, as outside of it, the self-revelation of the individual is to be the task… only freedom is equality… we need from now on a personal education (not the impressing of convictions)… knowledge must die and rise again as will and create itself anew each day as a free person.
Adults look upon a child as something empty that is to be filled through their own efforts, as something inert and helpless for which they must do everything, as something lacking an inner guide and in constant need of direction… the adult makes himself the touchstone of what is good and evil in the child. He is infallible, the model upon which the child must be molded… An adult who acts this way… unconsciously suppresses the development of the child’s own personality.
or to Montessori’s son, Mario, from the preface,
Man has discovered flight, he has discovered atomic energy, but he has failed to discover himself.
or to Margaret Stephenson, a Montessori instructor, from the foreword,
How can one learn through group play what it means to be a mother, father, space pilot, dog, when one does not yet know what it mean’s to be one’s self?
This psychic development of the child, a “universal” as Montessori puts it, into an individuated person, the man, unfolds along a predetermined path dictated by nature.
Childhood constitutes the most important element in an adult’s life, for it is in his early years that a man is made.
That is not to say that man’s childhood development is deterministic, but that there is a logic and a succession of predictable stages and events to it, much like a caterpillar becomes a cocoon and then a butterfly.
The place an animal will have in the universe can be seen at birth. We know that one animal will be peaceful since it is a lamb, that another will be fierce because it is a lion cub, that one insect will toil without ceasing since it is an ant, and that another will do nothing but sing in solitude since it is a locust. And just as the lower animals, so the newly born child has latent psychic drives characteristic of its species… A child develops not simply as a member of the human species, but as a person.
And the implication of this fact is that the child, in his childhood, has special needs during this period of development which will allow this process of psychic development to occur without obstruction or injury, ranging from the suitability of his environment, to the tools and instruments he has at his use, to the way he is interacted with and communicated with by adults, who he sees as omnipotent, almost magical, beings of power and authority. (Isn’t it funny to stop for a moment and consider how sure of ourselves and the nature and limits of the adults around us we are, and how truly mysterious any of this was when we first made our way into the world as small children? Just ponder that for a moment if you’re having trouble grasping the significance of Montessori’s “secret”.)
What are some of these differences and needs between children and adults? The first is understanding the significance of work to each. For adults, work is a means to obtain a fixed and known goal, and the general idea is to work efficiently, that is, to get the highest yield in terms of outcome for the smallest amount of resources and energy expended. But for children, the purpose of work is to learn about the self– work is not performed to obtain an income, or to be fed, or to avoid a threat, but rather work is performed to experience the psychic benefit of knowing how to perform the work.
An adult walks to reach some external goal and he consequently heads straight for it… An infant, one the other hand, walks to perfect his own proper functions, and consequently his goal is something creative within himself.
In working, a child applies their intellect to the world, they come to understand their power and ability as a person to influence and change the world more to their liking, a fact that mature adults take for granted.
His hands under the guidance of his intellect transform this environment and thus enable him to fulfill his mission in the world.
Because of this, a child may be seen to work “aimlessly”, or “inefficiently”, or “incompetently”, but this observation is made from the point of view of an adult which is not applicable to the child and their psychic purpose in working. Montessori relates how adults who are finished working are typically tired and in need of rest or recreational stimulation, whereas children who are finished working are exhilarated and self-satisfied at accomplishing whatever it was inside of their psyche that compelled them to perform their work.
Another need is the need for separate property. Children exist in a world created by adults, for the benefit of adults and adults can be capricious with their property and arrangements in ways that are befuddling and intimidating to children. Everything in the child’s world (for example, in the home) belongs to the adults– the furniture, which is sized for the adults; the dishware and glassware and silverware, which is sized for the adults; the books, the clothes, the walls, the art, even the pets!
[An adult is tempted to overvalue his material possessions when they’re being handled by a child, such as with a glass of water being carried by his child.] The adult who does this may even be very wealthy and intent upon increasing his fortunes many times over in order to make his son still more wealthy than himself. But for the moment he esteems a glass as something of greater value than the child’s activity and seeks to prevent its being broken [and so interferes needlessly with the child’s development in stopping him from his activity with the glass].
Montessori describes the adults as “kings”, who may of occasion grant the child a right to temporary use of the king’s property, but never the right to possess the property themselves.
An adult, however high or low he may be, is always a powerful being in comparison with a child.
The child can feel as if it lives only at the mercy and privilege of the king. The child is constantly being instructed and informed how to use something, what to touch and what not to touch, to keep away from this or to go be near that. The child needs some of its own things, in sizes and qualities specific to its uses, so that it may explore and understand and “work” in the world around itself without constantly being in conflict with the adults.
An adult is constantly interrupting the child and breaking into his environment. This powerful being directs the child’s life without ever consulting the child himself. And this lack of consideration makes the child think that his own activities are of no value.
A final need is for adults to appreciate the differences in perceptive faculties of children, who, as Montessori describes, pay attention to details not just different in magnitude, but in kind.
A child’s psychic personality is far different from our own, and it is different in kind and not simply degree.
Adults are accustomed to looking at the world and paying attention to details in a particular way based upon their individual goals, ambitions, professional outlook, educational level, etc. etc. But children often pay attention to details quite differently, and in ways that conflict with adult perceptions or treat them as non-sensical or unimportant.
Children an adults are in possession of two different mental outlooks… Adults frequently attempt to point out ordinary objects to three- or four-year-old children as if they had never seen anything before. But this must have the same effect on a child as one shouting at another whom he thinks to be deaf [who is not so].
An adult may wish to draw a child’s attention to the beach and the ocean, but the child is fascinated by a tiny bug crawling across the sand. Adults are often quick to pass judgment on the child in these moments, as if they are “wrong” for not being interested in what the adult wants them to be interested in, or even questioning their intelligence or development when they seem incapable of taking such an interest. But as with work, observation serves a different purpose for the child than for the adult– it is not to satisfy his desire for recreation, or to attend to a productive goal, but to stimulate his psyche according to these innate, natural needs of his development.
Here are some other interesting quotes I collected:
I enjoyed reading this book, it stimulated MY psyche and made an impression upon me in terms of how much more there is to think and know about this subject than what I possess currently. I also enjoyed the archaicness of it, Montessori writes like a civilized person of years gone by, speaking articulately and frankly about the world around her without apology and with much conviction and passion for her subject, something which doesn’t seem to exist anymore in our world of sterile, clinical academics reluctant to take a position on anything of import. But it was not always an easy read and it was fairly repetitious. I will likely come back to the book at some point to re-read certain passages that I found hard to appreciate without an experience of raising a child myself. Yet, I wouldn’t recommend this as an “essential” title for someone looking to up their parenting game unless I already knew they were more philosophical in their approach.
I read a bit more in the Bringing Reggio Emilia Home book last night. I don’t know if it’s because I started reading Maria Montessori’s The Secret of Childhood which to me seems to hold an antithetical philosophical viewpoint, or I am just coming against the discomfort of a new idea, but some of the anecdotes that were shared seemed a bit bizarre. The author captured the thoughts of one of the local teachers, “Vea”, and I have selectively quoted them below:
I put a Plexiglass mirror out on the ground outside so that we could walk on the mirror… We walked on the sky and in some way, we were able to touch it… I think it’s important that the children enter into this “theater of the virtual reality” so that they can move in a different way according to the provocations that you give… The children walked on the clouds and “flew” with their arms as they pretended to be angels and airplanes… the games they played with the slides [images of the weather patterns observed] and this painting are filled with significance… we could say that these children have made a first collective work born of a common experience.
In this anecdote, Vea is talking about an exercise she created with various art media to tap into the children’s sense of “awe” and “wonder” about the world around them. Interpreting this charitably, children have strong creative faculties and their good-hearted teacher is creating circumstances where they can really let their imagination run.
But is it that simple?
In reality, nobody can walk on the sky. Angels don’t exist, and children aren’t airplanes, they fly in airplanes, which are specific physical objects with real physical properties that allow them to stay airborne despite gravity and being heavier than air. How does this work? This exercise doesn’t seem to touch upon any of this as it is related. One argument is that the children might be too young to appreciate physics. But does that mean they should be led to imagine that physics doesn’t exist, instead?
And what is a “collective work born of common experience”? The word “provocations” is probably a literal translation of the Italian cognate “provocazioni”, which has several meanings similar to the English, including “challenge, upset, anger”. I am thinking of the word “antagonize”, why are children being antagonized? Even the meaning “challenge” is confusing. Negotiating reality as a neophyte seems like challenge enough, does a teacher need to add to it by “challenging” children to walk on the sky or fly through it like angels? There seems to be plenty going on down here to contend with as it is.
Here is another anecdote:
“Let’s put in our yells!” [said one child, about what he wanted to try storing in a jar the children were given during one exercise] because they were excited and yelling. It was a lovely idea, so they yelled inside the jar closing it right away with its cover. Then, every once in a while they raised the cover ever so slightly, putting their ear to the opening to see if they could hear the yells that they had put inside.
As a wistful happenstance of young children playing, this scene is endearing, almost comical. Clearly, yells can not be contained in a jar and listened to later, that isn’t how sound works. It is “creative” in the abstract sense of a weird alternate reality book or movie where physics doesn’t exist as it does in our universe. But as something taking place in an educational environment, encouraged by teachers and with no “questioning” involved, or attempts to get behind the play to the real phenomena of voice and sound and recorded media, it takes on a more sinister appeal. What is practicing such behavior doing but confusing the mind? What are the children learning from one another here, but idle fantasies and make believe?
Earlier in the section, the book talked about the famed “Hundred Languages of Children”. It turns out this is a reference to different art materials that children can use to illustrate their experiences. Acetate, wire, clay, paint, crayon, etc., these are all media that children are instructed in the atelier (studio) to use to express their shared memories of various experiences. Again, it sounds innocent, what could be wrong with teaching children art and how to manipulate various materials for self-expression? But a “hundred languages” also has a polylogist ring to it, not a polyglot one, because in early childhood children are just acquiring languages skills in their mother tongue, and while it may be clear to them what they mean in their artistic acts of self-expression, it is much less likely that this meaning will be clear to others, such as other children, teachers, parents or adults. In fact, art is one of those things that is seemingly always up to interpretation, whereas verbal linguistics are relatively straight forward. Emphasizing self-expression through art seems to lead to a, “Think what you want to think, believe what you want to believe” kind of approach to reality and communicating with others.
But I am only two chapters into this, so I guess I don’t want to get TOO hysterical in my critical analysis!
I also watched “The Reggio Emilia Approach At Bennett Day School” on YouTube last night, seeking more information about this approach in practice. The video ended up being more about the history of the philosophy, which was helpful. A few anecdotal items of data stood out to me in the presentation:
Here is the video:
And here is how the Bennett Day School describes its “Progessive education” ideals:
Based on the beliefs of John Dewey first published in the late 19th century, Progressive Education is a philosophy built around cooperative learning environments carefully constructed by teachers in order to build understanding through meaningful, relevant practices.
In a progressive education environment, students “learn by doing,” engaging in activities and lessons which help them develop the problem solving and critical thinking skills that are essential to participation in a modern democratic society. Rather than focusing on rote memorization, Progressive Education focuses on social learning and collaboration to achieve relevant, authentic goals.
While influenced by student interest and engagement, Progressive Education asks teachers to guide students through the process of learning, modeling and encouraging the development of skills and knowledge that are necessary to effective citizenship. Students in a progressive school are not merely passive consumers of information, but active and engaged members of a learning community that seeks to develop within all its members (both adults and children) a spirit of participation and engagement that will seamlessly translate to the larger global society.
Your Self-Confident Baby: How to Encourage Your Child’s Natural Abilities
by Magda Gerber, Allison Johnson, published 1998
I read YSCB and Janet Lansbury’s Elevating Child Care in rapid succession; while this review will focus on the original work by Magda Gerber (founder of RIE in Los Angeles, CA), I may touch upon a few thoughts and ideas from Lansbury’s book as well.
The advice and ideas espoused in this book rest on two central premises:
This doesn’t seem that controversial, but if you ask me it flies directly in the face of what I have routinely observed in both American parenting and Asian parenting, for example:
American parents spend a lot of time getting wrapped up in the competition of their lives, which they impart to their children. Infant development is like a race– how quickly can the child progress from one stage to the next? And what burdens of guilt, anxiety, anger and frustration can the parents-as-pit-crew take on along the way to ensure the process is stressful and obsessive without wasting time reflecting about the race and why it must be won?
So this Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) approach, developed by the Hungarian Magda Gerber after a chance encounter with a pediatrician named Dr. Emmi Pikler in 1950s Hungary, is not just an antidote, but a holistic approach for individuals and families looking to foster authentic self-discovery in their children and connection built on mutual respect amongst kin.
But it is NOT a silver bullet! Raising children is still a real challenge, it still involves difficulty and even moments of self-doubt.
Gerber offers these basic principles:
Gerber cautions parents to slow down, to develop the habit of observing before intervening. Many child troubles — frustration during playtime, an unintentional fall, conflict over a piece of property with another infant — can be resolved by the child on its own if they’re given the opportunity and support to meet the challenge with their own solution. Similarly, it is not the parent’s duty to entertain or preoccupy the child, children become present-oriented and externally directed primarily through the influence of their anxious parents. If left to their own devices to play and explore at their own pace in a safe environment, they will learn to focus and entertain themselves through their own creativity and exploration at length.
Another suggestion is to “sportscast” the infant’s life during caregiving activities such as feeding, diaper changes, bath time or preparation for bed. By narrating what is happening to the child and why, and what will happen next, the child learns about the meaningful sequence of events in its life and can begin to build expectations about the future and acquire a measure of predictability about its life and routines which creates security, comfort and trust in the parents and caregivers. Young children’s minds are “scientific”, they’re always trying to understand the cause-effect relationships behind observed phenomena and one of the primary cause-effect relationships they are exploring as they develop is the sequence of activities across time. Much like raising a dog, following a predictable routine reduces stress in the infant’s life and allows them to focus their attention and learning on other things than the fear of what might happen next to them.
According to Gerber, quality time means total attention and focus on your child. Holding your baby while you watch TV, or read, or run an errand, is not quality time and the child can sense that it’s not the priority. Quality time is watching your child play, uninterrupted, or reading to him, or giving sole focus to feeding him, or diapering or bathing him. Because of this, Gerber encourages parents to reflect on even the routine caregiving moments, because over thousands of repetitions over an infant’s life they will leave an indelible mark on the relationship and come to represent a sizable proportion of the total “quality” time spent together– do you want your child, even in their limited perceptual state during infancy, to see their diapering as a disgusting task you as a parent have to get over with as quickly and cleanly as possible several times a day, or do you want your child to see that you love them and are interested in them even when doing mundane things like changing their diapers?
Further, this approach has a transformative effect on the parent, as well. By treating the relationship respectfully and seeking to include the child in caregiving activities by narrating what is occurring and being present in the moment, the parent is slowly but surely training themselves to see their child not as an obligation to which things must be done, but as another person like themselves with needs and values and a personhood just like other adults they interact with. They will be modeling for their child the very behaviors they wish for them to adopt in how the child is expected to behave toward others.
This book is chock full of so much wonderful, important information for parents, caregivers and anyone interested in the world of small children. It’s too hard to try to summarize all the advice and concepts and it wouldn’t be worthy to try. Instead, I will simply observe that this is another philosophical work that goes much beyond how to put on a diaper or how to create a safe playspace, and instead says much more about how we can build a peaceful and encouraging society for all people to live in, adults and children (future adults) alike. And to the extent this approach is not recognized and its advice goes unheard and unheeded, it explains clearly why we witness the social problems and family and individual dysfunctions we do!
Here is a brief list of some of the more pithy wisdom I enjoyed from Lansbury’s “Elevating”:
A relative recently gave me a copy of Bringing Reggio Emilia Home and asked me for my thoughts. Having never heard of “the Reggio Emilia approach”, I initially thought the book title implied a character named Reggio Emilia who was returning from somewhere they had been taken. It was only after I started looking into it on the web that I realized it is an educational philosophy originating in northern Italy.
I cracked the book open today and read through the first chapter, which details the author’s move to Reggio Amelia with her family (a husband and two young sons, all American) to pursue a one year internship as an observer at a preschool in the town, along with some of her first impressions. I still don’t know where the story is going or what kind of scenes will take place. Right now I am just trying to read with an open mind and understand what the author thinks the virtues of this “approach” are from an educational standpoint and what problems it helps to solve. I also want to be aware of problems I see it creating without addressing, but so far there hasn’t been anything like that.
Without going into further detail for now, the author lists the following as the “fundamentals of the Reggio approach”:
Here are some impressions so far.
The school sounds small, both physically and in terms of student enrollment. I think the “approach” recommends smaller class sizes and smaller overall school enrollments (20-30 total) and that typically there are two teachers per class who work in a supportive team. This seems to be the case at the Diana School she is observing.
The school has a team of cooks who prepare fresh snacks and pranzo (lunch) for the students, teachers and themselves. I really like this. The children take a nap after lunch. I also like this. Paying attention to nutritional needs and making mealtime special is part of my ideal lifestyle. Listening to the body’s needs and relaxing all the way to napping when called for, especially in the case of small, growing children, makes a lot of sense to me. I wish that the teachers didn’t read “fairy tales” to the kids before they took their nap though– this tells me that being reality-oriented is not a high priority for the “approach.” I like that the teachers and cooks get together and share their meal while the children sleep and that they do this at a leisurely pace and focus on social topics rather than “their work” (ie, working lunch).
The lesson plan or day’s activities starts with a debrief between the teachers and the children. There appears to be a lot of questions from the teachers aimed at understanding the children’s priorities and interests to be explored throughout the day’s activities. The children are semi-organized– some pursue independent activities, some work together, some volunteer to assist the teachers in engaging with other, younger children.
The town of Reggio sounds pleasant. The author and her husband walk to their local cafe bar for their morning espresso. Their sons ride their bikes to school through the city streets. Their neighbors quickly “adopt” them and have them over for dinner and vice versa to teach them Italian cooking and traditions. Interestingly, I noticed that the parks and public places are described as having a variety of age groups using them simultaneously, including youngsters, “amorous teenage couples”, families and old people sitting around talking and getting fresh air. When I think about the public parks where I live, I notice there are never any old people about, and that families with small children only go to certain parks with playgrounds, and adults or individuals with pets go to separate parks or go at different times, and few people think of spontaneously meeting their neighbors or community members in the park, or scheduling a get together there with a friend or associate. This seems like a sign of beneficial urbanity in Reggio that is strangely missing from where I live, but which I have noticed in public places in big American cities and in other public parks around the world– though in the US and certain less wealthy countries I have visited, there is also a problem with vagrancy and other undesirables using these parks.
The School Revolution: A New Answer for Our Broken Education System
by Ron Paul, published 2013
I got a lot of ideas from this book, so it will be difficult to rate it poorly but ultimately I believe that is what it deserves. The book is repetitious, poorly organized and lacks flow, which is exacerbated by the suggestion to send emails to various “@aweber.com” email addresses for more information about the Ron Paul Curriculum– it’s almost like reading a poorly-done web marketing pitch page as a book.
Also, I am pretty confident this book was ghostwritten by Gary North. Gary North is one of the people behind the Ron Paul Curriculum, the RPC website looks identical in layout and voice to Gary North’s website (right down to the weird bursting red orb icon that displays in the title tab of each site on my browser) and the repetition and constant reference to “the principle of X is: italicized principle for effect“, which is a Gary North trade mark. That’s disappointing for two reasons: first, Ron Paul, if he’s actually written most of the other books of his I’ve read, is a decent author in his own right and certainly his way of making a point is unique, so it’s a shame to not really hear from him in a book with his byline; second, Gary North is actually a great writer himself (his Mises on Money is a great summary/intro of Mises’s voluminous writings on the subject, and his web essays on economic subjects are thoughtful and methodically argued) but it just doesn’t show up in this book, which makes him seem like a poor communicator because he is constantly repeating himself.
So that’s what’s primarily wrong with the book and that’s why it’s going to get a low score from me. But as I said, it gave me a lot of ideas, so I still felt the need to record my thoughts more extensively and what better place than this review?
Paul/North have not provided us with a well-researched book on the history of the “rise and decline” of the US public school system. Nor have they provided us with a careful logical demolition of the philosophy behind our current compulsory public education policy (or shown us its Prussian heritage, or how it is designed to serve special interests and not local communities), or investigated the collapse of urban school districts into chaos, violence and low test scores. They mostly take it as given that if you’re reading the book, you understand the public education system could be improved upon in one way or another and you’re sympathetic to cutting ties with it in the meantime.
This book is not a recipe or handbook for reforming or revolutionizing the educational system in this country as it stands. It offers no panacea for the system itself. Instead, it suggests something simple: go around it.
The author(s) believe that, much like UPS and FedEx carry the truly valuable mail while the USPS schleps around coupon books, catalogs and other junk mail marketing offers no one asked for or intended to receive, the advent of the Internet as an even-lower-cost mass communication medium will allow people who want to have a great education from a top-tier provider get one, and no local district admin or state bureaucrat or federal educational gestapo can say nay or get in the way, devil take the whole system.
And surely there is something to this. As the author(s) points out, Harvard, MIT, etc. have already put their imprimatur on the movement by giving free access to their best lecturers on the web. Coursera is one of many other providers competing to provide similar access at similar prices to not-quite-top-tier but pretty close lecturers and content, and then there is the Khan Academy which is seeking to address K-12. While quality, format and specific content may differ, what is similar about all of these services is that they are voluntarily provided and are competing for their audiences, whereas government schooling is a monopoly.
The other key piece of the puzzle is who is financing these education systems. With the government, it is tax-financed. You’d think this means tax payers thereby control the system, but that’s the funny thing about government and anyone who isn’t totally naive understands it doesn’t work like that– the tax payers donate, the government does the honors. With these other systems, investors, entrepreneurs and nominally-private (ie, the major research universities) teaching institutions are the financiers and, to the extent that the consumer is paying for it in some way (ads, prestige, subscription fees), they get to call the tune. Without changing the funding method of education, it will be impossible to change the values reflected in it nor the structure by which it is conducted.
There is no need to critique the argument too tightly here because I think it’s very sloppily made, even though it could be done in an airtight, holistic fashion. The point is simply that there are ways to get around the public education system if one wants to, and I want to, and utilizing free or low-cost curricula offered on the web is likely going to be part of the tool kit for me and many others. The point is to be the change and not wait for permission or for someone else to make a horrible monopoly better.
There are a lot of forceful ethical claims in the book that I think are worth noting:
These are claims I agree with. I think it’s impossible to resolve these things with public education. So we are going to opt out.
One thing I wondered about was starting an alternative (privately funded) school. One problem revealed to me by this book is that in so far as it’s an “institution”, it’s going to get tangled up in a lot of the same problems that plague the public education system controlled by bureaucrats and regulators. Another problem (besides making the economics of it affordable) is that schools and lecture-based education cater to the least common denominator in the class (that is, the slowest student). The other students who are picking up the material quickly are left frustrated by the process. I was one of those students growing up, and it was miserable.
It may be that creating an alternative school is not a practical solution to the problem. It could also be that the alternative school would need to greatly rethink the method of schooling in general to be successful. One thing the author(s) suggest which is a novel idea for me is that the purpose of education is to promote the capability of self-learning. I say this is novel in that I have hovered around this belief for some time and even see it as core to my philosophy of parenting, summarized as follows: parents bring children into the world, without their permission, in a state of total dependence; the process of maturation and growth is a process of increasing independence; the parents’ obligation is to aid the child in the process of learning and self-discovery that will allow them to incrementally gain their complete independence; ideally, the parents’ could provide such an appealing moral example that they could also instill in their child the primary socialization value of interdependence, as well. Therefore, this idea of the purpose of a formal educational program aiming at teaching children how to learn whatever it is they want to learn, makes total sense to me.
If the early part of one’s education is centered on meta-learning (how to read and take in new information, how to think about it analytically, how to synthesize new information and understanding from it, and how to communicate it to others), then there is a point in the curriculum of the student where they can take the initiative in their learning and become self-guided and autodidactic. This principle dovetails with the idea of education as an act of self-discovery. Self-discovery can not occur when the self is incapable of thinking and learning on their own.
The book has some specific suggestions about important elements of such a curriculum:
You can see quite clearly that this curriculum is aimed much more at the tools of self-learning, rather than specific values or content within categories like “Art, History, Science” etc. (although the author(s) does suggest that part of the advanced curriculum he offers for older students includes specific content tracks that explore these categories in integrated ways based on the student’s interest). So one idea I got from the book in this regard is that I need to do some research and thinking about the curriculum I will follow with my children, at least early on in their education, to try to best prepare them to become self-learners.
Another interesting idea for an improved school is as a gathering place for tutorial groups of exceptionally talented and motivated students to pursue a kind of “Socratic dialog” based study of a subject, or as a place to be introduced to new or important ideas. The author(s) suggest that the method of lecturing to students to teach them material is outmoded and ineffective (only 10% of the lecture is retained, on average, 3 weeks after it is received, and which 10% varies per pupil). But they suggest that lectures if short and interesting CAN be useful for informing people of a subject they didn’t know existed or for exciting an interest in the usefulness of studying a particular subject, which they could then engage in a course of self-directed learning on their own.
One way to think of how this might apply at an alternative school is that rather than fixed courses with fixed classes and the same teachers droning on, students might pay for individual intro lectures for subjects they’re considering studying, performer by visiting scholars or experts who are actively trying to promote the topic as worthy of study. The school might also have classes which apply a particular methodology for a particular purpose (ie, a Montessori seminar for young students). Finally, as suggested, the school might be a common forum for tutorial groups of excellent students to meet, discuss and coordinate study on a focused topic of inquiry.
There were specific things in the book I also really liked. The author(s) is a big proponent of essay writing as a way of practicing the understanding of specific content one is learning about. The suggestion was for the student to start a blog and write essays or blog posts about what they’re learning, not necessarily a journal but more as a kind of conversation or demonstration of what they think the meaning or import is of what they’ve learned. They also recommend the use of YouTube and other social media to practice these skills, practice conveying ideas, and to interact with others with similar interests. Their specific approach is based around creating “leadership”, which is another important value for me that gives me ideas about how I would want to approach this with my own kids.
I also like that the book emphasizes individuality and reminds the reader that every student is different and part of designing a good educational program means paying attention to their individual needs– again, not an idea that gets much attention in the public system, nor can it.
One thing I thought was bizarre about the book (and the values of most parents in general) is its suggestions on how to make the acquisition of a college degree by homeschooled children affordable and achievable in an accelerated fashion, ie, around age 18. Higher education is largely a scam that wastes time and money and leads to enormous confusion of values and purpose. If you could successfully help a child to gain mastery over their own learning at a young age and watch them develop their own interests and knowledge for an extended period of time, I don’t understand why college (either the acquisition of a degree, or the social experience itself) would be beneficial or interesting for them at that point. What can they get from college that they can’t get on their own pursuing a career, starting a business, etc.? That seemed like a sop suggestion to the parents reading who want to do something radical but aren’t ready to completely intellectually flip out.
With any luck, my children will be holding down part-time jobs and/or entrepreneurially making money WHILE they’re pursuing their youthful education. They’ll come to my business and see and learn what I do and be a part of it or do something else they fancy. There won’t be a sudden point at which they stop being a student and start being a self-paying adult; ideally, they’ll incrementally gain both capabilities at once and continuing their life immersed in self-directed learning, growth and productive gain.
This approach might not be right for everybody, but then, I don’t think public education is right for anybody, so you could certainly do worse.
I have a funny thought from time to time that I thought I’d share. I don’t think it’s original, someone else has probably pointed this out before and they’ve probably said it better than I have, but here it is anyway.
I’m not writing this blog just for my pleasure or the pleasure of my readers, but for my children (and grandchildren). In a general sense, the internet is immortal and the words jotted down and thoughts expressed will in most cases remain on the web long after they’ve served their immediate informational purpose and even long after we’re dead and gone.
The work of future biographers and historians will be made infinitely easier by the public record-keeping of their eventual subjects, who have poured out their thoughts, dreams and anxieties for all to see on the web. The retention and archive of years and years of people’s personal electronic communications via e-mail in the cloud will further ease the work of these chroniclers.
But it is our children, for most of us unborn or currently incapable of understanding our written thoughts, who will be offered the strangest privilege by getting to look back on our personal, recorded thoughts. Up until now, most adults have never had to face children who had ready evidence of their past imperfections, mistakes and occasional cluelessness. No adult ever had to have the tables of parenthood turned on them as their children were unable to effectively watch them “grow up.”
The internet has changed many things, many businesses, many social activities. It is hard to imagine most traditional rules and styles of parenting surviving the internet completely unscathed. How will authoritarian, paternalistic, “because I said so!” parenting stand in the face of children who can read their parent’s blogs?
How will the State convince us of its version of historical events when we can all watch them ourselves on YouTube and make up our own mind about what happened and what was the significance of it?
For bloggers in their 40s and 50s, learning about the consequences of children who can read their blogs is probably becoming a weekly occurrence. For bloggers in their 20s and 30s, this experience is likely yet to be had though inevitably it will.
Rather than end my commentary with a warning like, “Be careful, your children will be watching you!”, instead I want to encourage readers to be fully cognizant of the opportunity to communicate with future generations in a powerful, new way. If your mission is to spread knowledge and understanding, smile knowing that what you’re writing and what you’re building will one day be enjoyed by your children, as well.
Be thoughtful, and they’ll be thankful!