Models of Education That Are Really, Truly Happening At A School Near You. Like This Isn’t a Crazy Theory. It’s Happening. Get Used To It.

Back when I was in elementary school in the mid 1970s, I read a lot. I would have a stack of books on my side table and read several simultaneously. If I really loved a book — The Boxcar Children, The Wolves of Willougby Chase, Anything by Laura Ingalls or Louisa May Alcott, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib, All of a Kind Family – I would read the book seven or eight times.

Because I loved reading and did it a lot, I got pretty good at it. I was several grades ahead of my peers by third grade. So, that meant that I was bored in regular class. I had already learned that kids hate you if you know all the answers, so I would pretend to not know answers to the teachers’ questions. Pretending to be dumb became such a habit that I was in college before I stopped doing that. Weirdly enough, I had to learn to act dumb again when I moved to the suburbs, but that’s another topic.

What kept me sane in English class was the beloved SRA kit. A quick google search for the “SRA Kit” brings up tons of nostalgic blog posts. In a nutshell, the box contained color coded, short reading passages and questions. If you answered the questions correctly, you moved up to the next level. Every kid worked at his or her own level. So, I could go as fast as I wanted and didn’t have to be publicly shamed for being smart.

Today, this is called individualized learning. With the rise of technology, the proliferation of low-cost chrome books, the popularity of Khan Academy, schools are increasingly looking at how they can leverage technology to supplement regular instruction. In a traditional classroom model, all 30 kids have to learn the same material at the same time. Teachers can’t reach the very smart or the learning disabled. With limited time and resources, they have to teach for the largest group of kids — the typical ones.

The advantages of moving towards the individualized learning model is that everyone is served and can learn at their own particular speed. The disadvantage is that it is heavily reliant on technology, and some kids are bored by machines. There really needs to be a teacher in the room providing feedback, support, and all that.

The more advanced form of individualized learning has a few different names — mastery-based or competence-based learning are most commonly used. This model goes back to the SRA kit. You can’t progress from yellow cards to the orange cards, until you have provided evidence that you really know the yellow cards. So, as Sal Khan explained to me, students can’t move onto do algebraic equations until they know fractions. Right now, in most schools, they do. Schools need kids to move from subject to subject, from grade to grade, as a cohort. But in his new private school and others like his, that doesn’t happen anymore. It’s not about seat time, they said. It’s about showing mastery of a topic.

That system of showing proficiencies in a range of topics is not theoretical. It’s the system in many schools in New England and in many of the top private schools in the country. Our very vanilla school district in New Jersey is considering implementing a system like this here. It’s coming.

Now, many of you might wonder how a kid like Ian, a non-traditional learner, would fare in a school that didn’t ring the bell to change classes every 50 minutes.

Ian already has a version of this individualized learning model within a traditional school and after traditional school. He is in a special ed reading class, but he doesn’t get much out of it, because his learning differences are totally different from the other kids in the classroom. So, in study hall, the school district bought him a reading program — IXL. He plugs through the different assignments. And then I supplement all that with a real teacher after school. He’s made a lot of progress in the past year. I think he’s up two reading levels.

And then some school geniuses put him in the lowest level math class in fifth grade, where he learned absolutely nothing. He was stuck in that level for all of middle school, because his teachers weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer. So, I took matters into my own hands and signed him up for Kumon, where he learned at his own pace, completing worksheets. And guess what? He’s out of special ed and getting an A in his class.

Because of his differences, he is in the resource room class for science and social studies, where he watches a whole lot of videos on the computer about particular topics. It works for him. He has a better grasp of American history than many of my students did when I taught at CUNY.

I don’t even have time to talk about how community colleges are increasingly taking over the job of high school education. The college model of one lecture and lots self-directed reading/research is basically this individualized education model.

So, it’s happening, people. It’s happening, because it does work for some kids. It’s happening, because we’re slowly working towards a system with fewer teachers or a system with lower expectations for teachers. It’s happening, because people don’t want to pay for traditional schools.

So, with changing notions of education comes a changing needs in school structures.

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28 thoughts on “Models of Education That Are Really, Truly Happening At A School Near You. Like This Isn’t a Crazy Theory. It’s Happening. Get Used To It.

  1. Wow, that is very different from my life: Collegiate (in NYC), Exeter, Yale, Berkeley, various law firms. At none of those places was there any social reward for acting dumb, and no one ever did (or does, at law firms). Admittedly, none of this may have much relevance to the education of the average American.

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    1. y81 said, “Wow, that is very different from my life: Collegiate (in NYC), Exeter, Yale, Berkeley, various law firms. At none of those places was there any social reward for acting dumb, and no one ever did (or does, at law firms).”

      My school experience was a lot like Laura’s, except I wasn’t smart enough to play dumb!

      I expect that there are also some gender differences in play here.

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    2. Yup, mine as well, and I am a girl (which, I think, does make a difference). I was indeed entirely too clueless to “play it dumb”. But, I would also have been incapable of it even if I understood that it was shaping my social relationships (and, as well, would have already been an outsider who would not have merged in). So though there might have been social consequences, I was in a world where smartness meant something pretty early on and soon in ones where it was entirely celebrated.

      The descriptions of the other women in this thread, though, is a significant part of the search for private/gifted schools: a place where being smart is not a burden to be hidden.

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  2. Agree about SRA — it’s a fabulous tool. It still requires a teacher if it appears that a child is getting stuck, but I hope we are not imagining a future with no teachers, or teachers who are basically paper pushers. It works so well because reading is a skill set, and the skills build on each other. Note that with SRA students are self-paced, but are not free to go off in their own directions — that would happen through free reading, not reading instruction.

    Math is a bit harder. Very few kids (other than geniuses) can thrive on an entirely self-paced math program. A hands-on teacher is needed quite a bit because kids are not immersed in a math world to the same extent as they are (ideally) immersed in a reading world. And for sure, they are immersed in a language world.

    Science and social studies are even harder. They are content-based, and kids need to talk about what they’re learning, see videos, visit museums, etc in order to fully absorb it. If they’re all learning different things, there can’t be interaction about the content the way there can be in traditional classrooms.

    But still, moving the parts of instruction that are appropriate for it to self-paced kits has been a great invention.

    PS my experience with individualization was a little different. I taught first grade using a program called “continuous development.” What that meant was that children in K-3 moved through those grades in a series of 12 steps — if a child was moving quickly, s/he could get moved to a higher level classroom whenever s/he was ready; if a child needed more time, s/he could end up in the same room for a few more months or an entire year the next year. It worked well, except that some of the upper-grade children were actually old enough to be in middle school. It was sort of like the old system of having children skip grades, or be retained, but without the glaring attention that used to be paid to those types of labels. What this told me was that even if a lesson is not EXACTLY on the level of each child in the room, as long as it is somewhere within their range, they will benefit from and learn from it.

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    1. EB said, “Math is a bit harder. Very few kids (other than geniuses) can thrive on an entirely self-paced math program. A hands-on teacher is needed quite a bit because kids are not immersed in a math world to the same extent as they are (ideally) immersed in a reading world. And for sure, they are immersed in a language world.”

      Yeah. My dad taught remedial community college math for quite a while, and one of the things they discovered was that the self-paced “lab” math class for remedial math was kind of a disaster.

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    2. I know a number of people who taught themselves math via Kahn Academy, hard math. But, they are extremely talented mathematicians. I suspect, though, that something similar is true for the SRA kits (which I do not remember –I just read, and read, and read a lot). Folks in this thread seeing the SRA kits as different from Kahn Academy math probably are extremely talented readers. My instinct is that this kind of self paced learning works for students who are already talented in the basic skills and also know how to learn. Though those who have actually taught children may have other important insights, I think our own insights about what is “doable” or “easy” is highly shaped by our own talents.

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      1. bj said, ” I think our own insights about what is “doable” or “easy” is highly shaped by our own talents.”

        True!

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  3. I understand what you mean about the unpopularity of getting all the answers right. I guess your social skills were better than mine – it never even occurred to me to dissemble!
    I, too, loved the SRA kits.

    However, I think that these, along with the various types of math online courses – work best as *extension* courses – supplementing the curriculum for kids who have an interest (or providing practice for kids who need to cement their skills).

    I truly can’t see them replacing a teacher.

    Having said that, I really see that my 12-year-old and his peers ‘go-to’ solution for ‘how-to’ questions is YouTube – so maybe the video learning is more of a reality than this print-based advocate wants to admit!

    The problem is, of course, who curates the online info?

    Critical thinking isn’t a big part of most of these courses/resources – and I’ve had several arguments about fact and fiction with Mr 12 (“I found a website, of course it’s true”). Less critical with math – but a big issue with softer sciences.

    And, I do think that the self-motivation issue is a big one. Great for kids with tiger Moms, nipping at their heels and helping them develop organizational and time-keeping skills; finding online courses that work for their kid (as you did for Ian’s math), and not letting them coast-along with ‘good enough’, or being pigeon-holed into a low-level course. Not so good for kids who lack that family support.

    Reality is that a ‘good’ IEP requires a lot of knowledge about an individual child, and the access to a wide range of resources to match with individual requirements; as well as someone to monitor and motivate, encourage and reward. I can’t see teachers and schools having the time and resources to do this on an individualized basis.

    Most likely, kids will be grouped into ‘similar’ learning strands – and the courses made available to the group as a whole (a better fit for some than others).- like Ian in the resource room strand for social studies. Of course, individual parents will still supplement with tutoring, online courses, etc. – more precisely targeted to their child’s needs.

    The cynic in me says that it’s no wonder teacher unions love the idea of competance-based and self-paced learning – after all, it puts the learning ball right back in the child’s court: your failure to learn has nothing to do with my ability to teach….

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    1. Well, sometimes it’s true. One of our children has seemed impervious to learning something, like reading, then makes huge jumps. For example, from not really reading to reading 300 page books in a couple of hours. It wasn’t the teachers; it might be that more complex, specialized materials tailored to his needs would have sped up the process.

      Can you demand that of a school? I don’t know. I tend to think there’s a limit to the degree of empathy and perception any teacher can extend to any single child. I think a school ecosystem that offers a range of approaches would be better overall. Rather than a Procrustean Bed, allow families to opt in to schools that fit their child. There are many families homeschooling their children, because they don’t fit the normal public school classroom. I’ve noticed a pattern of a certain number of families bouncing between public school, homeschooling, private school, online school, acceleration, etc, trying to keep their children in the game, so to speak. One family used online schooling for their child who was chasing a berth on an Olympic team.

      I too loved the SRA readers. I think they are great for children who need something productive to do, while the rest of the class works on things the SRA children have already mastered. Our children’s elementary school had a color coded box of free reading books. I had to go in to school multiple times to plead for more books to be added to the “hardest” box, as my kids were in distress at the lack of appropriate reading material. I know other parents did the same, although each one of us was told by the same teacher that we were the only parent to complain. “At your own pace” was only tolerated as long as it wasn’t too far ahead of the rest of the class.

      Educated parents are happy for schools to “invest” in technology, sold on the idea that it allows their child to get ahead of everyone else. Within the black box of the computer curriculum, though, many children would learn more reading freely chosen books. Requiring a child who’s ready for 4th grade material to do MORE 2nd grade material isn’t improving her education.

      Then again, individual computer lessons don’t sync with group work, which is all the rage. I’ve seen group work done well. It’s found in theater productions and musical groups. Maybe in some team sports?

      Last random thought: there are some children for whom it does not work well, until their fine motor skills come in. The odd child who goes by leaps and bounds above was stuck on the 0s table in 3rd grade, because he couldn’t type in the answers quickly enough to meet the speed goals for the computerized drill his class used. He could do well on hand written, “mad minute” worksheets, which were not allowed, because we’re all modern and such now. (sarcasm intended). I fear that people tend to stop thinking when computers seem to give authoritative answers. I fear that a certain segment of the population are being needlessly sorted out by technology.

      And isn’t it interesting that boys’ NAEP scores seem to be falling below traditional levels faster than girls’, on these new tablet tests? Hmmm.

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      1. Group work…. sigh. Sometimes I think group work is a really bad idea.

        I try to use group work for the things that group work does best: brainstorm ideas, share information. If you ask a group to produce a product, usually one person will end up doing it all. That’s when group work is a bad idea.

        Over the summer, in the midst of my trips back and forth to NY, I had a Major Project, which was to create a new academic program. I ended up doing a lot of the work by myself over the summer because it was easier and faster, but the process was problematic for a few reasons. First, there is now the perception that this is “my” program instead of “our” program. Second, the program is going to affect a lot of university stakeholders. (Sorry, I just want to laugh when I use those words.) I spent most of September and October getting buy-in and feedback from those stakeholders. There’s a political reason for group work; everyone who has a stake in it has a say in it. And third, the program benefitted a lot from the feedback from the other stakeholders. There were lots of things I hadn’t thought of. If I hadn’t reached out (*cough*my dean asked me to reach out; I can’t take credit), then I wouldn’t have addressed those issues.

        If we can use group work in educational settings to reveal the importance of the group process to accomplish these goals, then we are teaching our kids something useful.

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    2. Ann said, “Reality is that a ‘good’ IEP requires a lot of knowledge about an individual child, and the access to a wide range of resources to match with individual requirements; as well as someone to monitor and motivate, encourage and reward.”

      Unfortunately, that’s a lot harder in middle school and high school, where kids spend less time with each teacher.

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  4. These threads make me feel like I should have paid more attention to what was going on at school. I have no idea what my son’s school used for that stuff.

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    1. MH said, “These threads make me feel like I should have paid more attention to what was going on at school. I have no idea what my son’s school used for that stuff.”

      When things are going well, you really don’t need to know.

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  5. I’ve heard about SRA kits from so many talented people of my age. I don’t think I had the. But, I was, mostly, permitted to do my own reading (often behind the textbook). Sometimes teachers would complain to my parents, but not enough that I had to change my behavior. I realize, looking back, that that was how I survived K-6. In 7th grade, the material being learned by everyone turned interesting enough to me that I joined the class. In K-6 I remember being my own self-paced learner except for projects, which I loved, from the 2nd grade project on nutrition, to the 4th grade production of Velveteen Rabit, to the 5th grade play on bullying, written by a student teacher, to the 6th grade special projects (the Ohio State Fair, I remember, and Attaturk).

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  6. “Can you demand that of a school? I don’t know. I tend to think there’s a limit to the degree of empathy and perception any teacher can extend to any single child. ”

    I don’t believe you can demand the degree of customization some parents expect from a school. A school, by its nature, is a community of individuals. You can demand a range of books. I never remember that being a problem, but I hear about it often enough that I am shocked that schools/teachers are unwilling to provide that solution.

    I also think that one should expect some teachers who connect with a child over the years — but that expecting that of every teacher is fantastical.

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  7. Lots of good thoughts here. First time reading this blog…its great!

    What do you think of a 7 year old child in 2nd grade with special needs of overall average intelligence but with some higher thinking abilities and some slow processing speed in a typical classroom? I’m all for this learn as you go mentality rather than grouping him in with the self-contained kids who may or may not be at his level. Currently at odds with the school over this. In my mind, he just needs the right support in the mainstream. Those kids could learn from him too!

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    1. hoping4family, when I was a younger parent, I had more answers to offer. I’ve come to think that teaching is an art, not a science.

      Just from your description, in the same situation, I think I would opt to keep him in the mainstream classes. As far as I know from reading about it, kids who are able to be mainstreamed have better outcomes. It helps if the parents and the teachers are able to be a team, rather than at odds with each other. (I know this is not always possible.) Sometimes practicing skills at home helps kids to keep their heads above water in the classroom.

      Another thing is that teachers often do not agree with “the school” about actions to be taken, but may not have the freedom to express their opinions.

      Laura has written about her family’s decision points over the years on this blog. Others might have something to add.

      But, I send good wishes your way. The one thing that I have found to be true is that you are only as happy as your least happy child.

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      1. Cranberry said,

        “The one thing that I have found to be true is that you are only as happy as your least happy child.”

        True!

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    2. It’s super hard to make recommendations on a child, when I don’t know the kid or the culture of the school. The best kind of a situation for a high functioning kid with some learning differences is to keep them in a mainstream setting with an aide to assist them when they struggle. But that situation requires a teacher who has some training in special ed (most don’t) and a school culture that tolerates differences (not always the case). It depends on the kid, too. Does the kid get frustrated and depressed by his differences. If there are enough kids who are similar to the high functioning kid and the school can organize a well structured special ed class, where real learning happens, that’s not a bad situation.

      It’s really difficult to force a school district is do something it doesn’t want to do. You can nudge them and urge them in the right direction, but if they are resistant to change, then it becomes necessary to change schools or supplement after school.

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      1. Yup, exactly. I myself remember being irritated that some of the extended family of children only wanted to sit by their parents at the table (and wouldn’t agree, for example, to place cards). But, I hope, I kept my irritation to myself, and let the parents decide what was best. And, I did notice, that now, when they are “all grown up” they have acquired the skill (we used placecards at the last thanksgiving table).

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    3. In addition to being only has “happy as your least happy child”, the thing I learned as I parented through the years is that parents need to be given a great deal of deference in their individual decisions about their own children. I have some strong views, including the idea that children should be provided with the opportunity to fail and to tolerate distress. I will advocate for those ideas generally. But, when it comes to a specific decision about an individual child (absent concern about abusive or borderline abusive behavior) I have learned that it is foolish to imagine that I am a better decision maker than the parent.

      As Laura says, it’s super hard to make recommendations when you don’t know the actual child, but even when you think you do, you probably don’t know them as well as their parent. So, one part of my answer to questions about educating children (from friends, family, others) is to encourage the parent to educate themselves, think hard about what their goals are and how they are compatible with the child’s goals. So my own most important piece of advice is not to let everyone make you second guess yourself over and over again (while still listening to good advice where you can find it, including from your kids teachers who might have something useful to say, even if it is difficult to hear).

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      1. bj said, “In addition to being only has “happy as your least happy child”, the thing I learned as I parented through the years is that parents need to be given a great deal of deference in their individual decisions about their own children.”

        “As Laura says, it’s super hard to make recommendations when you don’t know the actual child, but even when you think you do, you probably don’t know them as well as their parent.”

        …and won’t have to live with the repercussions.

        And also, there’s a big picture that people who are not the kid’s parents don’t see.

        For example, I think we once shocked some family friends by letting our teenage oldest (14ish?) sit off by herself rather than sitting with the rest of us at dinner. I’m afraid they thought we were being wimpy not to lay down the law and make her sit with the rest of us and be social.

        But:

        –Our oldest puts in big days at school. After the end of the school day, she usually doesn’t want to deal with people (or at least didn’t then), and I totally can’t blame her.
        –There are a lot of things that we make our oldest do that she doesn’t want to. But we have to be selective. Having used up a bunch of “tokens” on such things as SAT prep, homework, room cleaning and music practice, we don’t necessarily have enough “tokens” to cover unwanted socializing–at least not every time.
        –I definitely do Tiger Mom part time–so the fact that I am being squishy about one thing doesn’t mean that I am always squishy. And vice versa. The fact that I am tough about one thing doesn’t mean that I am willing to die on every hill.

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  8. We had SRA kits when I was in third grade. I finished them in March and was then allowed to go to the library. Heaven!

    We didn’t have SRA in fourth grade, but were allowed to work at our own pace at math. Third and fourth grades were my favorite. Otherwise my main memories are of being in trouble for reading or working on other things (not what the class was doing) despite having completed the class assignment. That continued all the way through high school. I hated school so much. The social aspect was fine, I never felt the need to hide being smart from the other kids. It was the adults that made me miserable.

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    1. Tulip said, ” Otherwise my main memories are of being in trouble for reading or working on other things (not what the class was doing) despite having completed the class assignment.”

      I was kind of a hellion in 1st grade (I have distinct memories of sitting under a desk) and did OK with individual seat work in 2nd and 3rd grade (no SRA, I believe, but a lot of leveled workbooks that did more or less the same thing). Things kind of hit the fan in 4th grade, though, as we were doing more whole-class stuff in fairly large classes, and I was off in my own little world. I recall a lot of reading books behind textbooks around that time…I got some pretty cruddy grades that year from not really doing the work/having my own unique (wrong) ideas about arithmetic/the teacher expecting us to copy his geology outlines from the overhead projector/disliking the volume of writing we needed to do…I think a lot of kids might have connected well with the science material my 4th grade teacher was doing (there were some pretty spiffy lightbulb and circuit exercise), but I wasn’t mentally there enough/interested enough in the subject to connect with it. I think a lot of the material we did was defensible (except for the @#$%^&* outlines!), but it was completely disconnected from anything we did in 3rd or 5th grade or any grade earlier or later. Our 5th grade teachers also taught us a bunch (SO much depth on human anatomy!) but, again, it was completely unmoored from previous or later grades. I don’t know if that issue exists as much in public schools today, but it was very visible that back in the day, even good teachers were hampered by the randomness of subject coverage in elementary school back in the 1980s. It was just one darn thing after another–there was very little coherence in 4th-6th grade.

      I did better in 5th grade, was a model citizen in 6th, by 7th was actually a star, and I skipped 8th grade. But I might as well have spent most of 4th grade on the International Space Station.

      My mother (bless her heart!) still believes that my elementary school issues were due to not being “challenged,” but the 4th grade work that I struggled with was plenty challenging–but I was checked out and it involved a lot of handwriting. My mom finagled me a helper job at the school library, which went as well as you might imagine. (Get the alcoholic a volunteer job at the liquor store…) I have no idea what sharpened up my attention skills by 6th grade, but I suspect that it was largely developmental. School hadn’t gotten more interesting, and there was more handwriting to do, but I was a lot more capable of dealing with it.

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      1. AmyP, you remember elementary school? Wow. I only remember bits and pieces, mostly of recess. I was an eerily well-behaved child, I think. I found that if you do the expected work, which was not hard, the adults leave you alone.

        Then again, there were the SRA readers. Most of my teachers were experienced, old hands, so they probably let me do my own thing as needed. I do remember some sort of individualized test being administered in a library, which was likely an IQ test. I remember being the slowest child to get through the multiplication tables in my 3rd grade class. The public humiliation of the list on the wall motivated me to do better. No idea how I did on the IQ test, but in hindsight, I was probably spared some nonsense due to the results.

        I think the traditional classroom, with students sitting in rows, working on basic skills, handwriting and math facts, might be better for chatty children with ADD than the current love of sitting in groups and talking about things. I remember my ADD child loving the classroom with the teacher who sat the children in rows. The modern increase in ADD/ADHD might in part stem from the decisions by education thought leaders that the classroom environment should be “vibrant” and “stimulating,” i.e., really distracting for certain children.

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    2. And, my experience was being permitted to read or work on other things (from K-6) *in spite* of the fact that I only completed the required work if it was interesting enough. I have entirely empty workbooks from 5th & 6th grade (and only learned grammar — as a subject– in 7th grade and when I learned German). I did know grammar, but only from reading. I would say I liked school, but I don’t know what I would have done in K-6 if I was forced to do the work of the class.

      When people tell stories like this (Ta-Nehisi Coates, for example, says he entered school as the person he has found as an adult, wide eyed and open to learning, but that the adults in the school killed that wonder) I have a visceral reaction. I do so want schools not to be that.

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  9. I’m skeptical of people who claim to love learning as adults, but assert that school killed that desire when they were children. Most of the learning that adults do is cognitively pretty easy, such as reading popular histories on events or periods that interest you (e.g., material of the Andrew Roberts variety), reading non-technical descriptions of current developments in math or science (e.g., material of the Roger Penrose variety), or reading popular books on art or music. Compare those tasks to learning a foreign language well enough to do research in the archives of that country, or learning enough mathematics and physics to demonstrate how the planetary orbits predicted by general relativity will differ from those predicted by Newton, or learning to play a musical instrument even well enough to perform in an amateur musical. Very few adults work that hard at any kind of learning.

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    1. y81,

      That is a completely fair point.

      See also Daniel Willingham’s excellent “Why Don’t Students Like School?”

      https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4959061-why-don-t-students-like-school

      The answer is (as you suggest) that learning truly new things is really, really hard and requires a huge amount of mental energy, whereas fitting a few new facts into an existing framework is much easier and more comfortable than building an entirely new framework.

      Taking an example, my oldest flailed around quite a bit initially when taking guitar lessons about 5 years ago. She’d do fine in the lesson, the teacher would tell her what to practice and then she’d go home and be a complete blank as to what she was supposed to do. However, once she got past that initial stage, things started to gel, and nowadays (now playing ukulele), it’s not extremely effortful for her to learn new stuff, even if it is far more complex than back in the day, when it was a big deal for her to remember a couple of chords. She’s now working with her teacher on adapting piano music from the Lord of the Rings soundtrack for the ukulele.

      (The way we pushed through that initial stage with the guitar was that I had her take 2-3 lessons a week at least a couple times during that first summer, so that information started to stick.)

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