[FoRK] [silk] A radical new teaching method?

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Wed Oct 16 09:18:18 PDT 2013

----- Forwarded message from Heather Madrone <heather at madrone.com> -----

Date: Wed, 16 Oct 2013 08:33:26 -0700
From: Heather Madrone <heather at madrone.com>
To: silklist at lists.hserus.net
Subject: Re: [silk] A radical new teaching method?
Message-ID: <525EB1C6.4090509 at madrone.com>
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On 10/16/13 5:26 AM October 16, 2013, Udhay Shankar N wrote:
> Can the educators, homeschoolers, and various other interested parties
> here comment?
> Udhay
> http://www.wired.com/business/2013/10/free-thinkers/all/
> How a Radical New Teaching Method Could Unleash a Generation of Geniuses

It's not new at all. Victorian educational theorists talked about the
superiority of interest-initiated and delight-driven learning. The
free schools have been using this model for over 50 years, and my
mother (a psychologist) has remarked that she wishes there had been a
local free school when my siblings and I were growing up.

The unschooling theorist John Holt popularized this idea in the
homeschooling community in the 70s. Most of the homeschoolers I know
use unschooling when it works.

For most children in most areas, interest-initiated or delight-driven
learning works extremely well. You give the children resources and
support, and they learn. Young human beings are curious about the
world, and learning is what they do best. Get out of their way, and
they teach themselves. This is the time-honored way for young primates
to learn about the world. It is only in the last couple hundred years
that we have tried the experiment of separating young children from
their families, segregating them with age peers, confining them in
desks, and pouring the industrial product called education into their

Leave a young child in their family and community, give them access to
information and tools, and they engage themselves seriously in the
business of learning what they need to know to be successful members
of society.

Three of my four children learned to read by osmosis. They had access
to books and to older people who read to them and were available to
answer questions.

"Rig-huh-tuh, what's that word, Mama?"
"Right. The g and the h are silent and make the i long."

One son started reading simple words before he was 2. By the time he
was 6, he was reading science books intended for teenagers. He also
taught himself to read music during the same time frame, and would
read a musical score with as much pleasure and comprehension as
another person might read a novel.

At the same time, his just-older sister was not reading at all. She is
severely dyslexic. As a child, she preferred doing anything rather
than apply herself to cracking the code of written language. When I
realized this was an area of serious struggle for her, I tried a
variety of approaches, including a number of manipulatives.

One day, we were working with a manipulative where the child matches
letters to sounds and objects. The manipulative used pegs on the back
of the letters to match the answer to the problem. My daughter soon
deduced that it was far easier to disassemble the puzzle, turn over
the letter tiles, and match the peg patterns. This was genius in its
way, but did not help with the task of learning to read.

She did learn to read (the learning specialists say that her level of
remediation and confidence is amazing for a person with her level of
disability) and currently has a 3.94 college GPA. Learning to read and
write was not delightful or interesting for her. It took many years of
daily effort before she finally cracked the code at 11. She enjoys
reading now, but it takes her a long time to read anything.

In the 99% of areas where interest-initiated works for children, it
does work extraordinarily well. I don't think that it will turn
ordinary children into geniuses, but it does allow them to learn in
their own time and in the way that works best for them.

There is an idea in the unschooling community that children will
eventually learn to read if left to their own devices. For a lot of
children, that is correct, and there's no point in rushing them to
read before their brains are ready for it. A substantial minority of
kids, though, can't learn to read by osmosis. Their brains don't work
that way. If you just leave them alone and wait for them to learn to
read, they will grow up into illiterate adults.

Interest-initiated learning can also lead kids to focus on odd areas
that adults don't consider useful. In most cases, I think these
seemingly useless areas are valuable learning experiences for
children. In some cases, though, kids can get into unhealthy ruts.
Parents and teachers need to be aware of what's going on with the
children and redirect their energy if it gets into unhealthy patterns.

In sum, delight-driven learning is a great way for kids to learn, and
tremendous fun for the entire family. It's not the end-all and be-all
of education, though. There is a place for formal learning and adults
still need to monitor and guide children. We are primates, not
reptiles. We do not simply lay eggs and slither off into the sunset.
We teach our children to become adult human beings by spending lots of
time with them helping them learn everything they need to do to become
successful adults.

Heather Madrone  (heather at madrone.com)

Live sweetly in bitter times.

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