Michael Pearl, I’ve added a category just for you.

I originally saw Doc link to this story. I’ve since seen it at Meg’s & Carrie’s.

We have talked about this subject at length in these posts:

Howard Gardner

I first encountered the name Howard Gardner using a university library search system looking for reference material for this paper. Within the online system there were a number of abstracts on his book “The Unschooled Mind”. And, of course, given the topic I wanted to write about, the title caught my attention. The abstracts consistently gave a relatively low opinion of the theories presented in the book. However, one of the abstracts briefly described the background/problem which lead to the theories. The theories had no relevance to the paper (I made no mention of them in the paper) but the problem was relevant. I could not find the book in the university library so I bought a copy online.

I have never actually read all of the book. I’d guess that I’ve read about half of it. The problem I believe that Gardner was trying to solve was the following:

…that in nearly every student there is a five year old ‘unschooled’ mind struggling to get out and express itself.

What I believe he was saying was that however long a person spends in school, there remains within them the learner who learned without curriculum and external control. For example, the learner who learned how to walk; the one that learns to ride a bike, roller blade, skateboard, etc. Gardner used studies to back his argument. One of those studies compared the working (practical) knowledge of basic physics of recent MIT engineering degree graduates with school students. Both groups were asked the questions in a way that was not consistent with test or exam questions. An example of the type of knowledge they were evaluating is if I throw a ball, after it leaves my hand, in addition to friction with the air, what other forces are acting on its motion. The MIT graduates only did marginally better than elementary students. The majority of both groups did not know the correct answer (gravity).

The studies that he quoted would suggest that for most people all the years in school and all the ‘learning’ in school have little impact on their perception of how the world works. In other words, most high school graduates have many of the same misconceptions about how the world works the most 5 year olds do despite the fact that the high school graduates’ ‘education’ corrected many of those misconceptions.

At this point you may be wondering where this train of thought came from. TBH, it’s partly (but only partly) Carlotta‘s fault. I left her the following comment last night on this post:

I have his book ‘The Unschooled Mind’. Whether or not you or I agree with his theories on intelligence(s), the book is a worthwhile read in that it directs you to thinking about what the current education system lacks and seemingly prevents children from learning.

What lead me to thinking about writing this post started with the conversation going on in the comments here (also last night). Last night when I was going to sleep, I was thinking of the difference between process and product. An example that I thought of was those craft times where a group of kids ‘make’ a craft. The teacher/leader prepares for the craft making session by cutting all the pieces, making all the shapes, writing step by step instructions to aid in keeping everyone together, etc. In many cases, the only thing left for the child to do is apply glue a few times. What I realized in thinking about that example was that it was an instance of the product being more important than the process. That the end result be more or less the desired product is more important than the child make something on their own.

And then it hit me. That is the problem Gardner is trying to solve. What school delivers to a child is a product. School is not about the process of learning. It is about absorbing a predetermined range of knowledge which is planned down to the minutest detail. It’s no wonder education is considered a commodity. But the contrasting thing is that until a child enters school, the child’s learning is primarily about process. A child doesn’t learn to walk because it’s coming up later on a test or they need a license to walk or it’s going to help them get a job when they are an adult. They learn to walk because they want to walk. They learn to talk because they want to talk. And Gardner’s unschooled mind is one that learns because it wants to.

Even though I had no intention of offering comment on Gardner’s theories themselves, I’ve changed my mind. You can come up with whatever theories you want about the way our intelligence works. In the long run, if they are attended to at all they will be used in hopes of fine tuning the step by step instructions of mass producing a product. Theories about intelligence(s) can tell you nothing about what an individual child will want to learn.

The rubber meets the road

Before I get into this post:

Tonight I took down the calendar and counted the weeks I’ve been working over here – 36. In the post of Andrea’s that I link to below she talks about a tentative deadline we have set for ourselves. I’m down to a theoretical 6 weekends. So, what I talk about below may be pressing primarily on me in light of that deadline.

Andrea has been regaling you with the trials and successes of our renovations. It may seem as of late that we are under trial. It had not escaped my attention that this minor setback occurred both within 24 hours of my writing about problem solving and on Friday the 13th. Now, I’m not particularly superstitious and since this is the first intersection of that day and something significant going awry in my life, I’m not about to dig out the aliminum foil hat.

If I were to conclude that the setback was somehow connected to my life in general, I would expect it to relate back to what I had been writing about the night before. Because I’ve found life is often like that. And what I said was:

The key to problem solving is identifying the problem.

Andrea eloquently described the symptom of the problem as follows:

I heard the toilet flush.

And then water started squirting out of the hole where the doorbell wiring is.

Andrea also mentioned that she was somewhat upset by the latest development. And that’s quite reasonable given we have been working on the kitchen for a few weeks and we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel on the second key room in improving the prospects of a short time on the market when the time comes.

And for me, given the ongoing time away from home and the small windows of time which I have to divide between work on something like this and spending time with them while I’m home, this is one of those times when the rubber meets the road. It’s where theory meets reality. It’s the deciding point where in idea, philosophy or ideal becomes wisdom or platitude.

At the time Andrea told me, I had had a few minutes on the couch after the 3 hour drive home. So, unless it was critical that something be fixed right away, I wouldn’t have done anything about it that night. In this instance I didn’t even go look at it. Instead I mentally collected up all the things I knew about it:

  1. The waste pipe in question is a cast pipe.
  2. The toilet in question is the only fixture connected to the cast pipe above the basement.
  3. Including fittings, there is roughly 30 feet of cast pipe above the basement.
  4. Cast pipe is heavy. (I’ve since come up with a ball park estimate of about 5-600 lbs above the basement.)
  5. Because of the weight most of the cast pipe I’ve seen installed in houses relied primarily on gravity to keep it in place. Our house is no exception.
  6. The hole where the water came out is a relatively small in the wall.
  7. Until the cast pipe gets to the attic all of it is inside walls or in the ceiling/under floors.
  8. The toilet is not above the cavity where the cast pipe goes from the second floor to the basement.
  9. In addition to the cast pipe, there are 3 other unused water pipes (from the original heating system) that use the same cavity to get to the second floor.
  10. When I had the bathroom floor off a couple months ago I noticed that there was a block of wood wedged between the one side of the cavity and one of those unused pipes which might have been near the height of the hole for the doorbell..

Some initial conclusions that I drew were:

  1. It was not a small leak.
  2. Whether there had been a small leak before something had changed on Friday.
  3. The block of wood was likely partially responsible for the leak showing up in the kitchen.
  4. Removing the cast pipe or sections of it was going to be alot of work.
  5. The only way to determine how much work I was in for was to cut a hole in the wall.

And this is what I found:

If you look at the pipe in the picture you can see that it had been repaired before. The piece that is missing is a section of the flange that joined the elbow to the Tee. Given the layers of floor that I removed from the bathroom and what I had to cut through in the kitchen wall, my guess is that the last repair was on or before 1970. When our house was built 100 years ago, most things were made to last. I believe that the cast pipe is original to the house. The short of it would be that of the problems that I thought were likely this one is the best one of all of them to have to solve.

It brings back memories

Today was a wierd sort of day. I got lots accomplished but threading through it was a bizarre email conversation that lasted most of the day. I don’t really want to regale you with the conversation. Instead, I thought I might talk about 2 things that the conversation reminded me of. Every once in a while someone says something, often in an offhand sort of way, that is really profound. One of the reasons I think of these things as profound is that once framed as statement of some kind they become obvious. But often the issue they address is never approached.

Now the first of the two was a comment by one of my instructors in a class at college. This instructor walked into 3 hour classes with a single sheet of loose leaf, wrote a list of 5 or 6 words on the board, sat the sheet on the corner of the desk and then proceed to teach for 3 hours on subjects like processor architecture. One day I caught a glimpse of what was on the paper. It was the list of words that he wrote on the board. Once (and only once) in my second year he paused part way through class and apologized that he was going to have to look at his piece of paper. It was this instructor and a somewhat offhand comment that has been central to most of the work I do day in day out. What he said was:

The key to problem solving is identifying the problem.

I would expect that most would see the irrefutable nature of the statement once the statement is made. It’s so simple and yet I find that our society often does not apply this in trying to solve problems. For example there are all sorts of initiatives in places that attempt to deal with pollution and other environmental issues. I’m not dis’ing those ihose initiatives. Why do we have a pollution problem? Because we are a consumption based society. While environmentally friendly products may alleviate the issue, they will never be the solution because they don’t address the problem.

To try to relate this to the usual subject of this blog. In the same way, the education systems that exist today do not attempt to solve learning problems. Insteading of trying to ascertain why a child is not learning they attempt to ascertain why the child is not learning in the environment and by the methods the institution provides. And that might give you an idea of what I think the prospects are of the educational systems finding a solution to the problem.

After I had been out of college a few months I went to a weeklong series of seminars related to the equipment I was supporting. The first seminar is really the only one I remember anything about. And if I were to see the person who conducted it, I would remember where I had seen him instantly. At the time, he was one of the leading experts in optimizing the use of the equipment I supported. He traveled across Canada charging more for a day than I was making in 2 weeks. (He quoted a range of figures based on an inquiry from the audience and he wasn’t permitted to give an exact figure.) And what he said was,

The real world is a special case.

He went on to explain that he could not give us a list of technical facts/rules to follow that was guaranteed to work on our own systems. But, what this really translates into is that having a head full of knowledge is not really of much use to you when you get to a situation where the knowledge would be used unless you are prepared to think. It is through thinking that expertise in some area can be applied in a useful way.

Back to this blog again: What I set out to do as a parent and while I was an instructor was cultivate the ability to think and apply the knowledge that they have at their disposal. Knowledge has never been easier to attain. The ability to use the knowledge available has never seemed to be in such short supply. I guess it comes back to what problem are we trying to solve. I will leave how this relates to my day to your imagination ๐Ÿ™‚

Good Quote

When we adults think of children there is a simple truth that we ignore: childhood is not preparation for life; childhood is life. A child isn’t getting ready to live; a child is living.

See the rest at A Day in our Lives

Also, Too Much Homework. There is interesting reading in the comments as well. (HT: Carlotta)

Outcome Based Learning II

sam asked whether outcome base learning took into consideration what the child wanted. One of the first things that came to mind when I read his comment was that I could not recall a time when public education and consideration for what a child wanted had ever been in the same train of thought. I realized afterward that was because in my experience public education had no consideration for what I wanted. I’m not saying that I didn’t have a few teachers who bent the rules a bit to make what they were teaching more interesting.

Although I’ve never been subject to it, I’m certain that outcome based learning would have even less concern for students than the process I went through. In outcome based learning, the only thing that is clearly defined is the end result. So, I honestly expect that outcome based learning is mostly an exercise in behaviour modification. That would explain the soaring number of behaviour related prescriptions.

PS. It seems in some cases I have been calling it object based learning. I think the slip of the tongue is a result of the train of thought I was following when I was writing the original post on the subject.

Object Based Learning

I’ve been away from the computer(s) and internet since I wrote the post below. The comments have given me reason to want to expand on the subject. I won’t have a chance to address all of them tonight. Carlotta referred to my suggestion of students being objects.

The biggest challenge I faced when I was teaching in college wasn’t differences in learning style, ability or interest. Surprisingly (at least for me) the challenge was that many of the students I had seemed to expect that I was going to perform some mystical process and when I was done they were going to be ready to work in a profession. The hardest fought lesson was getting students to understand that the primary object of the courses I taught was something other than pleasing me: that I genuinely wanted and expected them to learn and be independently skilled.

I actually had a student ask me one day if what I had just asked them to do was ‘busy work’. Of that term, that is the most memorable moment for me. It gave me alot to think about. One of the things I have concluded from it is that once they reach a certain age/understanding level many students recognize or feel that through most of their education they have been objects. If that is the case then that would explain the students I first referred to in the previous paragraph: they had surrendered to being an object.

Whatever reasoning and motivation might lie behind the approach is secondary. What gave me the most to think about was wondering when or if some of the young people in such a state will ever see their way out of it. It’s a weighty thing to contemplate.

Math Question

Paradise Found asked the following question in her blog:

How is it possible that a child can understand and complete the process of long division one day, and have forgotten how to do it by the next day?

I immediately opened the post from bloglines and started writing an answer. Then I thought that others might be interested in reading it:

The problem most kids have with math is they learn the mechanics of it but don’t understand why the mechanics of it solve the problem (in this case division). Long division is a repetitive process of the repetitive process of multiply-compare until the right number is found and then subtract.

If I haven’t pointed it out yet, after a certain point in math, almost everything reuses the simple math that was learned in the early years. So, it is by nature repetitive. The issue with learning something like long division is that a child who knows how to multiply, compare and subtract can follow the mechanical process of long division without learning a thing other than they have to do more of stuff they already know how to do.

I believe that is the reason most kids who start having problems with math at ages 8-12 have problems. It isn’t that they aren’t capable of it, but that they see no reason for it. They are just doing the same things in different ways to different numbers. And it’s boring.

I did a homeschool workshop a little over a year ago. During the workshop we got onto the subject of math and a one mother mentioned her child having problems with math. I responded, “He’s what, 9 or 10?” She was speechless. Because I was able to see all the faces in the audience, there were a few other mothers there who had had the same issue at the same age at some point.

What we did was use real problems. Packages of items that contain X items costs Y. How much did each X cost? This package contains 18 items. That one contains 24. Which one is less expensive per item? Opportunities for real math are all around us ๐Ÿ™‚

An unheard voice

A week ago Joanne posted Unschooling Voices #1. The question for the July edition was, “How did you and your family come to unschooling?” Because of the schedule I’ve been running, I didn’t have the opportunity to answer the question in time for the July edition. But I do think it is a question worth answering. Before I get to that…

The optional August question is, “Do you extend the principles of unschooling (trust, freedom, etc) into any other areas of your child’s life?”. (Details on submitting blog posts)

The simple explanation of how our family came to unschooling is that it was all a matter of time. But that doesn’t really say very much. TBH, I have known for years that there was a single moment at which I stepped onto the path that through many twists, turns and dead ends eventually lead to unschooling.

A little over 10 years ago, our oldest was in his third year of school. At the time, we were still somewhat following a school-at-home program. He was doing math that he had originally learned two years before. In the course of helping him with it, I came to the startling realization that even though he knew how to do the math, he had no idea as to why he was doing it beyond that was the way it was done. What I wanted to say next was some estimate of how long it took me to get over that. I spent about 5 minutes thinking about it. I have a sneaky suspicion that I haven’t gotten over it and that I probably never will. In any event, I spent the next week or two helping him understand why we borrow when we subtract.

I could write pages and pages describing hundreds of things that happened between then and now. I can summarize it somewhat tangentally. All of my teenage children are excellent at math because the only interest I had in teaching them was that they understood what it was for, what purpose it served and why it works the way it does. If you ask them a question that involves math it is unlikely that any of them will reach for a pencil in paper. They do math in their head. If you are wondering what approach we used in planning and adjusting over the years, the simple version would be that if it didn’t work, we threw it out. No preconceived idea/assumption or ‘proven method’ was exempt from the possibility that it was erroneous.

There are times, of course, when most of us second guess ourselves. But unschooling is not something about which I second guess. When you are standing on the side of the road in the dark and your child is tangled up in a bent up mountain bike describing the symptoms of his injuries, you don’t have alot of time to decide what is important. What you think about in the hours and days that follow define that for you. Speaking from experience, whether your child can list off the political leaders of your country through history is not important. Being able to compose a paper conforming to APA standards does not make or break a life (and is, in fact, worthless to you in a situation like that). Given the amount of the typical child’s life that is invested in school, I believe our society has a serious priority problem.

IMHO: Rote learning is worthless. Sitting a child at a desk and giving him or her a sheet of math questions to do which serves no purpose to the child beyond proving to you that that the child is capable (or demonstrating that in those circumstances he or she can’t or chooses not to) is a hideous offense to another life which is every bit as valuable as your own.

In refering to the accident above, I hope I haven’t suggested that prior to it we spent alot of time second guessing what we were doing because that wasn’t the case. There are things that come along in life which are gateposts from which there is no turning back.

(For readers who have joined since we started this blog, in the Fall of 2004, because of the glare of headlights from oncoming traffic, Addison hit a washout on the shoulder of the road, flipped his mountain bike and broke 4 vertabrae in his neck.)

The value of expression

There was a heretofore unmentioned little sidebar project I was working on for the last few days. Hopefully, in the next month or so I’ll be able fill you in on what that sidebar item was. Anyway, in the course of working on that I got to thinking about the human need for expression. In some ways this relates back to my post on freedom of speech. To an extent it is in the sense that they are both aspects of the same thing.

In some posts prior to that Andrea and I address some difficult subjects. They were difficult in the sense that, in a number of ways for subjects such as those, there simply are no words which will articulate how you feel. Second to that is the challenge of being articulate with a subject which weighs so heavily with you. In some ways it would be easy for me to get off into that subject again, but I want to focus primarily on the positive side of expression and how I’ve observed it playing out in children. And how I’ve transformed that learning through reflecting on things I’ve observed throughout my life and things I’ve found through examining my own behaviour. I included this paragraph in the post because the whole subject of that form of parenting was the one which had me thinking about expression and children.

We are often complimented on how articulate Emma is. Few use the word articulate, but when it comes down to it that quality is what they are refering to. Many adults we encounter are astounded by her. The reason she is so articulate is amazingly simple: practice. She has had years of experience of talking and listening where the ‘big people’ around her took her seriously and conversed with her. I (on the cell phone) had the following conversation with her:

Em: Hello.
me: Hi sweetheart.
Em: Daddy!… What are you doing?
me: I’m driving.
Em: Are you making your way home?

I know from reading some of your blogs that it’s not a great exception by any stretch. The thing is that it doesn’t read like it was said by a 5 year old. What it illustrates is something I’ve seen in many children: the desire to speak like an adult. The larger question is what is behind that desire or what drives that desire?

Over the years, I have had an interest in understanding what it was that made me tick. There were things, (ok, there are still a few things) that were seemingly insignificant that pushed my buttons. There were other things that I was (am?) somewhat compulsive about. For my own sanity and well-being, it was necessary that I fathom some of those things out. One of the ways I worked toward that was by observing my kids.

What I believe is the answer to the above question is the need (or want) to express oneself and to have that expression understood. In a child, that means that framing what they have on their mind in the language of an adult is the best avenue to having an adult understand it. When I am in front of the computer writing a post, most of the thinking that goes into a post is not about what I want to say but in how to say what is on my mind in a way that it is unlikely to be mistaken for something different. The sort of person who I’ve found to be the poorest communicator is one who promptly blames the person on the other end of the conversation for any misunderstanding. That’s because they don’t give a thought to what they might be doing that is causing it and therefore don’t get any better at it.

From birth, most children express themselves. When they are newborns, they only have one means of communication and that is to cry. Later they learn to coo, make noises and smile. But the drive to be understood is clearly evident. Every year the number of blogs on the internet doubles. I don’t believe that the need to express oneself dimishes with maturity. I do believe that a person will not feel fulfilled (or happy) unless they have avenues of expression. Even though our society makes great talk of freedom of speech, it provides few opportunities or avenues for expression. And that is what I believe fuels the blog explosion because an avenue of expression is what blogs have created.

For all of the talking that I’ve done, what I’m really trying to encourage you to do is to provide your children with avenues of expression. Talk to them as though they were another person. Debate and discuss issues with them. Allow them to disagree with you on those issues. Assume that they things they say to you are serious and legitimate and important from their perspective. Your children will benefit from this far more than any instruction/training you will provide them with.