On the tragic, premature intellectual neutering of young people

Learning should be fun. It should be especially fun in the beginning, for kids.

If one learns early on that learning new stuff is fun he’s on the right path. If one learns early on that learning is painful drudgery, he’s headed towards a very limited existence. In this situation, he’s also been, unfortunately, misguided by something or someone or some system.

Tragically this system is often “formal education.” The flaw in this system is that people should be grouped by age and moved along on a conveyer belt covering a fixed curriculum. This “one-sizes-fits-all” learning is highly sub-optimal and now, largely with the help of technology, it can and should be abandoned.

Kids should just move along at whatever freakin’ pace they want and not be made to even feel like it’s a race.

Especially in the beginning, more work should be done to help kids learn how to learn and why they’re learning what they’re learning.

I’m a big fan of the mastery-based learning system that Khan Academy has reinvigorated. Their technology allows teachers to monitor, in one dashboard, every student’s progress so far and identify a student’s areas of mastery and areas of deficiency. The point is to not move on to more complicated stuff until you know you’ve nailed the building blocks for that stuff.

I was recently talking to a Computer Science student who said he liked the programming part of his studies but didn’t like the math. I was trying to tell him that for a lot of programming you don’t need to know any complicated math; you just have to know how to organize your ideas. Neatness is valued more than math skills, to an extent. The issue is that you don’t realize this until you actually start to build stuff for yourself, just for your own enjoyment, outside of any school deadlines or grades. You don’t realize this until you decide you’re just going to have a, “I’ll just figure this out as I go along mentality.” Often school can make you feel like you shouldn’t take the leap off that cliff until you’ve finished this part of the curriculum when the truth is that this part of the curriculum could be totally unnecessary for the thing you’re interested in building. Even worse than this is when you become frustrated by the curriculum being mandated and lose interest in the area of study altogether.

This happens a great deal. I’m not a musician but I was watching this random video from the very entertaining Harry Miree about the way he was discouraged by his formal study of music in college and it reinforced that this is across all areas of study. There are a number of ways we can be prematurely deflated in our love for something. I’ll admit, sometimes we just aren’t cut out for something and knowing this takes some real self-awareness but other times I suspect we wrongly decide we’re not cut out for something because we’re being forced running through all these hoops that don’t actually represent what that thing we’re interested in really is but we’re made to feel these hoops are important and left feeling dispirited if we don’t enjoy some of these hoops or can’t initially keep the pace.

That’s really the bottom line: We need more customizable learning that’s meant to support what students are interested in building.

I should also mention that I don’t think all learning should be easy or fun. I just think it’s fun to develop the satisfaction and fun of learning and feel the sense of empowerment that comes from it because only with this are you then able to endure the really hard parts that will come like locking yourself in a closet for a month while you read up on this thing or practice this new piece.