In a previous post, I mentioned the concept of frictionless learning. This is a concept I arrived at after my experience in public schools. Even after being disillusioned with many subjects, I still had a lot of interests, but I frequently felt frustrated in my ability to explore them. Nobody around knew the answers to many of my questions. I could go look through the card catalog at our little school library and sometimes find a book that covered a subject at a very superficial level, but it was very unsatisfying. We were very fortunate to have an encyclopedia at home, but I had several early experiences with incomplete or incorrect information that left me wondering what else was out there.
I left high school with the sentiment that the system was actively impeding my learning. This did serve me well, as I had established that subjects I was really interested in needed to be explored on my own. It was a very inefficient way to arrive at a correct conclusion. As a graduate student, my advice to undergraduates was always that nobody really got good at computer science by attending classes and doing assignments. Those who achieved expertise did so on their own time, on their own terms.
We cannot force interest in a subject. The current system for many subjects does just the opposite and actively quells interest in all but the brightest, most precocious students. I am convinced that a large part of the reason that intelligence correlates with academic success is because the more intelligent students are the ones who are able to get things in spite of the lousy instruction and painful environment. They see enough connections early on to maintain interest in the face of mindless exercises. My point is that children are naturally curious and interested in things. You almost never meet a kindergartner who “hates” math. The hatred is a learned behavior, and one which we can largely avoid.
So, what does this have to do with how we instruct our children? I think that it relates back to the idea of focused or deliberate practice. When the desired goal is deep understanding of a subject, rather than mastery of a technique (such as chess or tennis), then in many cases the idea of focused practice can be translated into that of active inquiry. An hour spent honestly searching for answers and asking questions is worth ten of drilling material.
One of the main ideas of this blog is to use “pull” education, rather than “push” eduction. I summarize the difference as the difference between “You must learn this”, and “Hey, check this out…”. Anything that causes a student to lose interest, or prevents them from exploring a question, I refer to as friction. Being unable to explore the answer to a question or not having resources available is a form of friction. Spending time being forced to drill something to the point that the child develops an active dislike for a subject is a form of friction. Being told that a child is spending too much time on a subject and needs to keep moving so they can get to all seven subjects today, creates friction.
A child’s curiosity and interest is a powerful force that we must leverage and maximize if we want to provide a solid education. We can work to stimulate curiosity and interest, but it is more important to avoid creating mental blocks than it is to cover every subject all the time. I would rather go a month not doing any math, than spend a month fighting my child and thus create a pattern of hatred for math. In the end, it is much easier to catch up on lost time than it is to remove painful mental blocks.
Does this mean that we support the idea of unschooling, that children should only study things they want to, whenever they feel like it? No. What it does mean is that we need to shift our focus from trying to push children through subjects to looking for ways to pull them through. Unfortunately, this requires a lot of work on the parent’s part. To stay aware of a child’s understanding, and how to grab their attention, takes effort. We’ll be discussing more techniques to do this as we go along on this blog, but so far we’ve had fairly good success keeping our children moving forward in all the key subjects without developing any intense dislikes.
This brings us back to the concept of friction in learning. We live in a remarkable age, with the internet, smart phones, and a huge variety of educational material at our fingertips. If you develop an interest in physics (for example) as an adult, you have the ability to instantly answer almost any question with a quick web search. You can watch lectures from top universities like MIT and Stanford. You can quickly do a keyword search on Amazon, read hundreds of reviews, and select books to explain in as much detail as you want, anything you want. Many adults have not yet figured this out, but our children are growing up in a very different world than we did. For almost zero cost and very little time outside of actual learning, you can master any subject you want. No wading through a card catalog, hoping that your little library has something interesting. No being stuck with what a boring teacher is saying. No having a question and not even being sure where to look for an answer. In other words, no friction. You can learn as fast as you want and go as deep as you want. Are you taking advantage of this?
Children bring a natural curiosity to the table. When my son expresses interest in something, I can immediately find information on it. Within seconds we can be watching a Youtube video, or reading a Wikipedia article. We can watch a Stanford lecture. We can quickly research and order a book on Amazon that will show up in two days. We can discover others with similar interests online and make connections with experts in the field. There are really no limits. He can go as fast and deep as he wants, and frequently surprises me. We don’t mess around looking for simple books for kids, unless there is something that gets excellent reviews. I commit to being there, working through things with him and answering questions.
Beyond this, we fill our house with interesting books and resources. I’m always on the lookout for good material, and make things available so that he can explore on his own and discover new things to be interested in. We carefully pick and choose when to challenge and test, instead focusing on the learning process itself. Testing is generally informal and just enough to satisfy my questions about how much he is retaining. Occasionally we challenge him to demonstrate something, but this is far enough removed from the learning process that it is not associated with and doesn’t damage the desire to learn. The focus is on learning so that something is understood, rather than learning so that it may be demonstrated, or a test may be passed. Understanding is its own reward.
So, the key to to frictionless learning is providing resources so that a child may learn as fast as desired. Combine this with a home environment that inspires a love of learning and children will excel. Such an environment involves the parents as companions on the journey of learning, as well as mentors who provide guidance and track progress. Historically, this has never been possible to the degree that it is today. Take advantage of it.
As a postscript, I should point out that we as a family have not implemented this perfectly. We’ve struggled and explored. Tried things out and failed. Our philosophy is continuously evolving, and we hope to capture some of that journey here.