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Two Very Different Things

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Our layers are in a bit of a slump right now – a few molting, a few getting long in the beak (that’s a joke, right? because the saying is actually “long in the tooth” but chickens don’t have teeth, so I wrote “long in the…” Oh, never mind, you got it), and the new pullets are not yet earning their keep. We’re getting four, maybe five eggs a day, which would be fine if we weren’t an eight egg-per-day family. And that’s if we’re on strict rations, as we are now. Unrestrained, we’re probably in the double-digit-per-day range.

This is all merely a long way of saying that last night I found myself driving to a friend’s place to pick up a couple dozen supplemental eggs. It was a nice evening, a little muggy and warm perhaps, but you don’t go complaining about muggy and warm in September because you know that pretty soon there won’t been any muggy and warm to complain about for, oh, eight months. At least.

So on the way home I was listening to the Ted Radio Hour, window open to the deliciously muggy and warm air, and lo and behold what should the topic be? Why, learning, that’s what. And even more to the point, how kids learn. My ears perked up some, let me tell you.

I was particularly intrigued because earlier in the day I’d been a guest on a radio show and one of the listeners had called in to suggest that I’m not actually qualified to teach my children. Because, you know, I’m not a licensed teacher and furthermore, I didn’t even finish high school, which I guess most people think is a pre-requisite to knowing something about teaching. I’ve even had people tell me that since I didn’t finish high school (not to mention college ) I’m not educated, which always irritates me a bit. As if there were no other ways to become educated.

Anyway and all, I didn’t have a particularly snappy response to the caller, though I sure tried to summon one forth. I think I said something about disagreeing with her, that in my experience kids don’t need someone to teach them, that they’re perfectly capable of learning in the absence of formal instruction. Truthfully, it was a fine answer. I didn’t stumble over it and it was honest. But I doubt it changed her mind even a little bit, though in my experience, you don’t change someone’s mind during a call-in radio program no matter how convincing you are.

Anyway and all again, the first segment of the TED radio hour featured a fellow named Sugata Mitra. I’m gonna try and keep this short, but basically what Sugata did was install computers in public places in small Indian villages. And then what he did is precisely nothing. He explained nothing, he demonstrated nothing, he taught nothing. And what he observed is that when left to their own devices, children could teach themselves the most amazing things. Like advanced molecular biology. Like foreign languages. Like advanced molecular biology in foreign languages.

To any of you interested in childhood learning, whether you believe that self-directed unschoo… er, immersion learning works or not, I highly recommend listening to the segment. Sugata seems like a delightful fellow and his observations are fascinating and I have no doubt they would extend to adults, if only we could muster the innate confidence and love of learning that resides within our children.

Sadly, I think, many of us have lost confidence in our own ability to learn without formal instruction, and I believe it is from this place of uncertainty that we question our own qualifications to guide our children’s learning. Which, as Sugata so eloquently points out, is actually less about guiding than simply getting out of the way. It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about making room for learning to happen.They sound a lot alike, don’t they? But the truth is, they’re two very different things.

25 thoughts on “Two Very Different Things”

  1. Oh wow, I read about Sugata’s computers and was fascinated by it. From what I read, part of the hypothesis as to why the children mastered the use of the computer technology and the internet was that it was simply fun for them to use and learn. No pressures, no instructions, no fear of making mistakes or using it incorrectly. And they openly shared what they learned with their peers.

    In other words, they were observed displaying curiosity and excitement about learning. Not something commonly observed in older school children.

    It saddens me that so many people think the only way to learn is to be taught by “experts”. I think your response was wonderful.

  2. i tried listening to you. the raido show website said you were in ‘hour 2’ and there wasn’t an option to skip to that. after 2 minutes in hour 1 my brain started melting. if there is another option to listen and you can let me know, please do so. always like ‘the ben Hewitt experience’ in different mediums. and if you do tv spots and whatnot view-able online around promoting the book/s let me know. don’t be shy. actually be shy. be educated. be uneducated. be whatever the heck you want my friend… what are we trying to do here, i forget? are we trying to be something or un-be something? or do both at the same time. fuck me. life is confusing.

  3. Yeah, that was an amazing Ted Talk. Here’s a link to the video. I’ve been passing it around like mad lately… along with your piece from outdoor magazine on unschooling.

    You must watch this ted
    Talk. It’s about education.

  4. This is good. My husband is right there with you. His last year of school was 8th grade but he is one of the smartest, most educated people I know. And he’s hot. So there’s that 😉

  5. Our little brood calls it free-learning: anytime, anyplace, anyone. Ken Robinson has some good talks, too. Like Sugata’s, his are fairly old and made the rounds, but still ring true.

  6. Suga Mitra’s TED talk is FASCINATING and most provocative. His comment that we should not focus on MAKING learning happen, but rather on LETTING learning happen is compelling. Perhaps there is a message in his own meteoric career: “Stay out of the way to enable curiosity and self-learning” for individual passions to evolve; thereafter, specific structured programs (leading to Mitra’s PhD) can be pursued if impelled from within. Thanks Ben, for directing us to the work of this Indian polymath.

    1. Letting learning happen may be much tougher to do that it initially appears to be. Maybe we do not let it happen, as much as we could, when we provide access to media, toys, games, people, or even swimming holes. What is the mother of invention? Need?

  7. I tired to listen to your interview, too, but it appears you have to be a member to listen (not that you’re not worth the price, of course, but I’d rather the money go to you. ) I so enjoyed the last radio interview you wrote about (it was quite some time ago – I think NPR in NH, maybe?) I have read about Mitra’s work before and have used this information when I feel the need to educate someone about non-institutional learning. It’s funny that so many people think without school no one would be able to use a computer. As far as I can tell, computers have only become more and more user-friendly over the years to the point that one need not understand them much at all to use them (kind of like how most people who can drive a car couldn’t tell you one thing about how it works beyond putting the key in the ignition.) Maybe not a good argument for homeschooling but my point is that it is strange (to me) what gaps in knowledge people assume a homeschooled child will have with no basis for their assumption. And I agree we live in a culture obsessed with credentialing. The result is an overreliance on so-called experts (and anyone can become an expert with some cash and time to take the certification course), lack of confidence in our own abilities and a devaluing of time-honored skill and plain know-how. There are people everywhere who are walking universities of life-tested knowledge that no credential or degree could improve upon. Personally, I am usually suspect of someone who calls themselves an expert at anything. Most truly knowledgeable people I know seem to recognize that they will always be a student and are fine with that.

  8. Brilliant TED talk by Sugata Mitra and thanks once again for helping with direction for our home ed journey. I’ve been struggling to get my head around a lot of it and wearing the self doubt. My teaching background has been ESL for adults one on one, not kids and my eldest thinks totally opposite to me so there have been challenges. Still, with what I’ve learned here and an article I came across yesterday about home ed with ASD kids (my boys show signs of being on the spectrum) I feel like I have a handle on it at least a little.
    Thank you

      1. My wife also tells me that the easiest read for the layperson on the subject is “Breaking the Vicious Cycle” by Elaine Gottschall.

    1. I’d also recommend the Body Ecology approach conceived by Donna Gates. Her protocol includes probiotics, fermented foods, and a restrictive diet to rebuild healthy digestive system. I think there are a lot of similarities to the GAPS diet Bearpaws mentions. I have a friend whose son was diagnosed with Asperger’s (and 22 food allergies, poor thing)and he has essentially become symptom-free with this approach. I wish you and your family the best.

      1. Thanks. We do eat sauerkraut, milk kefir and kombucha but our diet has regressed over the winter so time to get back into it. i will be researching GAPS and Body Ecology. Thank you. 🙂

  9. Unfortunately, unless your children aspire to follow your career path as a Jeffersonian subsistence farmer and writer, they will be competing for college slots and those harder to come by financial aid dollars against all those kids who are following a traditional educational path. It is hard for most colleges to rate a admissions candidate without a GPA, class rank, ACT/SAT score, etc.

    Your children are lucky to have involved parents, but I wonder if you are educating them in the manner that you wished you had been educated, rather than in a manner that will provide them with the best possible preparation for “the real world”. That said, I doubt that the public schools in rural Vermont are capable of providing an optimal environment for academic success without a healthy dose of parental funded supplemental education, such as that which can be purchased via Kaplin, Kumon, and Sylvan.

    I sincerely hope that, when you have the advantage of 20/20 hindsight, the choices that you make for Fin and Rye will have worked out in their best interests.

    1. If you want to be a Cavendish banana you need to be of uniform quality and shape and without blemish. You better be able to ride in a cargo container for 14 days and be able to be stacked high in the grocery store. Thank god that not everyone in the real world has to be a Cavendish banana.

      1. If your post was aimed at me, you totally missed, ’cause I don’t have a clue as to the message that you are trying to send.

      2. Personally, I’m tired of all those damn Cavendish bananas judging the rest of us for being all bumpy and disorderly.

    2. Jeff,

      I don’t at all mind that you seem skeptical of our choices and I get the sense that you genuinely care. I appreciate that. In regards to college eligibility, my experience – which includes speaking with numerous adults who were unschooled – is that unschoolers generally have no problems being accepted to the schools of their choosing. In fact, many – though certainly not all- schools are moving away from the GPA/ACT/SAT methodology of determining eligibility. I strongly believe that my sons’ atypical education will serve them well whether they choose college or not. I also believe that it is entirely possible to lead a meaningful and prosperous life without a college education. I understand that you may disagree.

      1. Ben,

        Although I don’t know you, I perceive that you and Penny are great parents who really love and care for Fin and Rye, but “the real world” is unforgiving under the best of conditions and more so for the unprepared. You have probably gone through some challenges that your parents felt that you could have avoided if you’d challenged yourself to stay in school.

        I agree that it is possible to lead a meaningful life without a college education, but most people who don’t earn a BA/BS have far less lifetime earning power than those who do, Bill Gates being at the far high end exception of that bell curve distribution. Both my Father, B1909 – D2000, and Father-In-Law, B1920 – D2004, didn’t graduate from high school and both were successful businessmen, but both of them encouraged all of their children to seek the higher education that economic circumstance prevented them from pursuing.

        I’m not critical of your choices, since your children are your children, not my children. I’m sure that there are people who disagree with the way we have raised our children, too demanding and too competitive, but I think that they are happy, proud of their achievements, and capable of being successful wherever their paths may lead. IOW, when it is time for them to leave the nest, they will be well prepared to lead an autonomous life. My way is just different from your way, more traditional, but neither better nor worse, just different.

  10. Great stuff Ben. Also, here’s to ‘lying around’. In the last few days I’ve been less frenetically active than usual and lay in bed for a few hours/sat in front of the fire (southern hemisphere here). The company and academic questions from my children have been amazing! Me relaxing is like a magnet to them. Some of their questions: “I wonder what humans looked like while they were evolving… I guess it was gradual…” “What does DNA look like?” And they’ve been picking up New Scientist and reading it – it’s a great read to have lying around. (More ‘lying around!’)

  11. I truly love the discussion here. Even those who disagree, and who really agrees with any point 100% anyway, are doing so courteously and inviting dialogue. I have enjoyed listening to your story and approach to the raising of your children. I feel the terms “educating” and “raising” are one in the same. Even in a modern traditional schooling situation, your child’s learning does not end at the schoolhouse door. We should all be conscious of the learning that occurs outside of the classroom. Exploring their environment, be it city or farm, and using their hands to create and build, broaden and reinforce whatever type of schooling situation you provide. Thank you for sharing.

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