Thursday, December 2, 2010

"School is Where You Learn"?

Over the past week, my older son, age 10, has been teaching himself how to make stop-motion animated videos. He was inspired partly by repeated viewings of Wallace & Gromit movies, and partly by a series of LEGO-based science-fiction movies made by amateurs and posted on YouTube. He started making his own LEGO movies and then decided to move into Claymation.

How did he learn how to do this? By watching more YouTube videos. He studied animated clips, and he found how-to videos, and he watched them patiently, repeatedly, stepping away from the computer between viewings to experiment on his own, with clay and a video camera. He's getting very good, very quickly.

Last year, we took him and his little brother to the local Air Force base to see an exhibition of planes and fancy flying. I bought him a souvenir model of an F-16. On the way home, he asked me question after question about the F-16. All I knew about it was that it had cost me 10 dollars. So he took my wife's I-Phone, and in the 20 minutes it took to get home, he taught himself everything he wanted to know about that plane, using Wikipedia, YouTube, and a few other sites.

What would I have had to do, at age 10, to learn about F-16s? I would have had to go, physically, to my local library. Or I would have had to go, physically, to my school library. Or I would have had to go to my basement, to check out the 20-year old World Book Encyclopedia that my parents had inherited from someone. Information and expertise lived in clear, discrete places, and you had to go to them to get what you wanted. That's why those places existed--to centralize the information and expertise, so that any people could have access to them. That was the democratic principle in action, because in earlier times and other cultures, only the very wealthy had access to information and expertise. They built libraries and brought tutors into their homes for their children.

Now, today, information is in the air, accessible by anyone, anywhere, at any time. And expertise is likewise being uploaded into the air, through video demonstrations and lectures, podcasts, lesson plans, and so on. You can learn how to knit. You can learn how to draw. You can learn how to factor quadratic equations. If you want information, it's there for the taking. If you want to develop a skill, some form of tutoring is there for the modeling.

So, if all this is true, and our 10-year olds are already comfortable living in this world, what is the future of the school building? What is it for?

In other words, if I don't have to sit all day in a prison-like building, moving herd-like from room to room to be talked at in groups of 30 by a succession of lecturers who care more about my obedience than my learning, why should I?

Take a look at this article by a former homeschooler, about "boredom" and his association of boredom with school learning. It reminds me very much of a chapter from John Taylor Gatto's "Dumbing us Down," in which he talks about growing up out in the country, and how he learned many things about life, nature, auto mechanics, and other things just from knocking around on his own--unscheduled, unschooled, and free to pursue his own, Tom-Sawyer-ish curiosity.

Back when Gatto wrote the book, the choices were stark: play by the rules or walk away; go to school like everyone else, or opt out entirely. Now, though, it doesn't have to be quite so either/or. There are more and more "blended" learning models being built and experimented with, combining live, on-site instruction with the use of online learning. Here is just one example.

On the one hand, this is all fascinating from a theoretical viewpoint. It's interesting to see where it's all going.

On the other hand, though, what does it mean right now, today, when I look at my 10-year old and hear, from his 5th grade teacher, that he is daydreamy and distracted, that he jumps ahead of the class conceptually in some areas but lags behind the group in fact-gathering, in other areas? How do I reconcile the child who can't/won't get his work done in school with the autodidact who is rapidly and effectively self-educating in areas of interest to him? How much conforming-to-the-norm should I have to force him into, for his own sake, if that norm is rapidly eroding...but not yet gone?


Baly said...

"...information is in the air, accessible by anyone, anywhere, at any time..."

...with the right expensive equipment and monthly access charges. We still have a ways to go on the access end of information.

Melissa Logan said...

I don't know, A, I'm struggling with the same issues with my son. He can't sit still worth a lick, but it's not negatively impacting his ability to absorb information. He may be lying down on the reading carpet, not making eye contact, but he'll answer any question you put to him with comprehension and insight. He reads with fluency and feeling. He sees patterns easily, performs arithmetic functions without thinking about it, but has gotten in trouble three times this week because he has too much energy for a desk and chair.

I don't know; it seems wrong to constantly tell him to calm down and be quiet when he's just excited about life and learning and existing in a world with other people and so much information to absorb. I cringe to hear him tell me he's bored or he's tired because he has to sit still in a class while they move too slow. His punishment was recess detention, which seemed like a shot in the foot for the teacher, to me--deprive an energetic child of the one outlet that might help you channel some of that energy productively. Good idea.

I wish I had some answers.