Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Your Kid Can Learn Anything

The other night, we were talking about education, standardized testing, bureaucracy, teaching and the like. I have some pretty strong opinions in that area that aren't always popular with the formal education crowd.

For example, I believe that college is a waste of time for most people and parents would do better by their children to set aside the money they would have spent on college and invest it until the children actually figure out what they want to do with their lives. Wouldn't it be great to be 26 or 30, to finally know what you want to do with your life and then have the money to do it? To start a business? To invest in real estate? To go to university?

I also see two things that are fundamental flaws in most formal educational systems for which there are no work-arounds (you just have to fix'em):
First is the notion of age-appropriate curricula: the notion that by a certain age a child should be able to do this or that, that a child who doesn't is somehow behind, and that a child who does earlier is somehow ahead.

Second is the practice of addressing learning challenges by changing the curriculum rather than changing the teaching method; as we determine that some children are better at math and science and others at language and art, rather than adjusting teaching methods to address how children learn, we adjust their curricula to provide them with subject matter they seem to be able to handle.

By Now...
The acceptance of age-appropriate standards and curricula is nearly ubiquitous. Some parents begin studying charts and graphs or=f where their children should be by a certain age even before the child is born. Even parents who maintain a positive, non-judgmental attitude regarding their children can feel a little pinch of doubt or concern when they see that their children are "falling behind".

The typical response is to intervene. Help Billy to catch up with consultations, tutors, special classes, special schools, therapies, extra help after school, etc. The problem isn't the extra help (necessarily), it's the focus of the extra help. Age-appropriate benchmarks are determined statistically, they're simply measurements of what an average child can or cannot do by a certain age. They're culturally biased and only measure a small subset of all possible metrics. They don't actually mean anything.

And yet, we imbue them with all sorts of meaning. Parents never seem to question them or say, "So what?"

But the question is: so what?

Well, the so what is that little Susie won't keep up with her classmates in the pursuit of age-appropriate curricula! It's circular reasoning. We measure our children's progress against age-appropriate curricula so that we can make sure that they stay on track within the age-appropriate curricula. When our children fall behind, rather than asking, "Well, what other types of curricula are there?", we buy into the system as though it were the only game in town.

It's not! There are infinitely many ways to define a curriculum, one of the oldest being sequentially. Rather than looking at where a child should be by a certain age, you instead look at the steps required to get from point A to B and then you proceed step by step. If Susie finds step twelve challenging, rather than looking at why she can't do step twelve, you first look back at steps one through eleven to see what step or steps she might have missed or not fully mastered.

The process is similar to stacking building blocks. Rather than trying to figure out why the twelfth block is not as high as it should be, you look to see which of the other blocks in the stack is missing.

This type of curriculum has been used for centuries to teach artisans, musicians, artists, meditation, martial arts, etc. More recently, it's emerged as an alternative to age-appropriate curricula for children who are developmentally challenged and is often referred to as a developmental curriculum. Seeing that sequential curricula have worked for centuries if not millennia and that age-appropriate curricula seem to not work that well, why are we so hung up on the latter?


It's the Method
The second fundamental flaw depends on the first. When we see that our children are not performing well in certain areas compared to their peers and when we've exhausted our capacity to correct their age-inappropriateness, we decide, "Well, Billy's just not good at math. Let's help him focus in other areas."

The concept of innate capacity for math or music or art or science is fallacy. There are simply people who show up at the age appropriate counter with all prerequisite steps checked off and others who are missing a couple. When we skip the responsible-parent mandate for ringing hands over the age-inappropriateness of our children and jump to helping them fill the missing gaps, we see remarkable results. It's just a matter of finding which step was missed and finding a way to teach it.

And that brings us to teaching method. To state the obvious, not everyone learns the same way. It's obvious, but rarely do we act on it.

Many people learn through instruction and reading. They go to classes, they read lessons, and they do homework based on the instruction and reading. This is the dominant form of education.

However, there is also a large group of people who learn through doing; they can't make sense of things until they actually try them. People who learn through instruction and reading tend to be treated as "college material". People who learn through doing tend to be treated as trade-school material. There are subjects that we associate with instruction and reading, e.g., math, science, language, and subjects that we associate with doing, e.g., music, art, sports.

I'm a learn-through-doing type. I never feel like I've really understood something until I've done it. When I read a textbook, I can come up with at least five different ways to interpret what they author might have meant, so until I try it myself, I'm just never sure.

When Joy was just three and Eila one, I started night school to see if I could get ahead at Bell Labs. The last thing anyone who knew me growing up would have expected was that I'd be pursuing a computer science degree. I wasn't good at school and I was terrible at math.

The computer science degree required three semesters of calculus and then a couple more of more advanced math. So, my first semester, I found myself in a calculus class and I had no idea how I'd survive it. They ended up canceling the evening session due to poor enrollment and I couldn't make the day session. At first I breathed a sigh of relief, but then realized that calculus stood between me and making more money. So, I made a deal with the professor to teach myself and show up for the tests.

Very reluctantly he agreed. However, he told me that the deal was off if I fell behind as evidenced by the quizzes and exams.

So now what?

I bought five different calculus books hoping that by reading several approaches to the same topic, I could sort out what was actually being said. Slowly I began to grasp some very basic stuff, but I wasn't "getting" it. Then it occurred to rethink calculus and treat it like music: practice, practice, practice.

I asked the teacher for a copy of the answer books that accompanied a couple of the texts, and then I began practicing calculus. I'd do problems and then check them agains the answers. I'd figure out what I'd got wrong and then redo the questions.

And then I'd do all the questions again, and again, until I could do every question without a mistake. And then I'd move on.

My memory for theorems and formulas is terrible. However, the things that I do frequently become second nature. As I progressed in my teaching/learning method, the advanced topics became the easier one; they simply built on what had preceded them. By the end of the semester, I didn't have to remember anything. I could derive the things that weren't second nature by building on the steps that had preceded them.

I got the highest score on the final exam and ever since then, I've been comfortable with the fact that I learn differently.

I'm not sure why I'm all up in arms about this today, but for me, learning is among the best of all experiences and it's so frequently denied to people because they're not where they "should" be or because they learn differently.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and experiences, how you've learned what you couldn't learn and where you might have given up but would like to try again.

Happy Wednesday,

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