Law Professor, California, USA
Editor’s Note: The following was originally written in 2007. It was submitted by the author with an updated postscript at the end.
I’ve decided to write on how we educate our children in two parts. The first part will describe the arguments for our approach, and the second our experiences with it.
Our approach starts with the fact that I went to a good private school, my wife to a good suburban public school, and both of us remember being bored most of the time; while we learned some things in school, large parts of our education occurred elsewhere, from books, parents, friends, and projects. It continues with some observations about the standard model of K-12 schooling, public and private:
- That model implicitly assumes that, out of the enormous body of human knowledge, there is some subset that everyone should study and that is large enough to fill most of thirteen years of schooling. That assumption is clearly false. Being able to read and do arithmetic is important for almost everyone. Beyond that, it is hard to think of any particular subject which there is a good reason for everyone to study, and easy to think of many subjects outside the standard curriculum which there are good reasons for some people to study.
- It also implicitly assumes that the main way in which one should learn is by having someone else tell you what you are going to study this week, what you should learn about it, and your then doing so.
As some evidence of the failure of that model, consider my wife’s experience teaching a geology lab for non-majors at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, probably the second best public university in the state. A large minority of the students did not know that the volume of a rectangular solid—a hypothetical ore body—was the length times the height times the depth. Given that they were at VPI they must have mostly been from the top quarter or so of high school graduates in Virginia; I expect practically all of them had spent at least a year each studying algebra and geometry.
As all students and most teachers know, the usual result of making someone study something of no interest to him is that he memorizes as much as he has to in order to pass the course, then forgets it as rapidly as possible thereafter. The flip side of that, routinely observed by parents, is that children can put enormous energy and attention into learning something that really interests them—the rules of Dungeons & Dragons, the details of a TV series, the batting averages of the top players of the past decade.
Quite a long time ago, we got our kids Gameboys with Pokemon cartridges; at about the same time I heard a lady on talk radio explaining that kids who got high tech toys played with them for half an hour or so and then put them on the shelf. My estimate is that my two children logged something like eighty hours a month, perhaps more, on those cartridges for many months thereafter—more work and more attention than I, at a similar age, put into all of my schoolwork combined—and continued to play the game at a reduced rate for years thereafter. The skill they were learning, how to find their way around a world and accomplish goals therein, was in one sense useless, since the world was a fictional one. But being able to find one’s way around a new environment and accomplish things within it is a very useful real world skill.
- A related assumption is that you learn about a subject by having someone else decide what is true and then feed it to you. That is a very dangerous policy in the real world and not entirely safe even in school—many of us remember examples of false information presented to us by teachers or textbooks as true. A better policy is to go out looking for information and assembling it yourself.
Part of what that requires is the skill of judging sources of information on internal evidence. Does this author sound as though he is making an honest attempt to describe the arguments for and against his views, the evidence and its limits, or is he trying to snow the reader? That is a skill that is taught in the process of learning things for yourself, especially online. It is anti-taught by the standard model of K-12 education, in which the student is presented with two authorities, the teacher and the textbook and, unless the teacher is an unusually good one, instructed to believe what they tell him.
We concluded that the proper approach for our children was unschooling, which I like to describe as throwing books at them and seeing which ones stick. Leave them free to learn what they want, while providing suggestions—which they are free to ignore—and support. Put them in an environment—web access, people to talk with, visits to the library—that offers many alternatives. If, at some future point, they discover that they need something that was left out of their education, they can learn it then—a more efficient strategy than trying to learn everything they might ever find useful, most of which they won’t.
When our daughter was five, she was going to a local Montessori school. Her mother thought she was ready to learn to read; they didn’t. So Betty taught her to read, using Doctor Seuss books. Our son, three years younger, observed the process and taught himself. We heard about the local Sudbury school, new that year, and brought our daughter over to visit. She decided she preferred it to the Montessori school, so we shifted her. A few years later we added her brother, and a few years after that we shifted to homeschooling.
The Sudbury model includes classes if students want them. When our daughter was about ten there was a class, lasting somewhat over a year, in math. It started by assuming the students knew nothing and ended with the early stages of algebra. That is pretty much all of the formal instruction either of them had. In addition, we required them to learn the multiplication tables, which are useful to know but boring to learn. That, I think, was the closest thing to compulsory learning in their education.
How did they get educated? They both read a lot, and although some of the books they read were children’s books, pretty early they were also reading books intended for adults. When our daughter was about nine we were traveling and ran out of books for her to read, so she read the Elizabeth Peters books her mother had brought along—and liked them. A few years later our son, about eight, went everywhere carrying the big one volume edition of The Lord of the Rings.
Betty remembered having liked and learned from How To Lie With Statistics—actually about how not to be fooled by statistical arguments—so we got a copy and both kids liked it. Our son likes D&D and other games with dice rolling, so he was interested in learning how to figure out the probability of getting various results. It turned out that the same author and illustrator had produced a book on simple probability theory—How to Take a Chance—so we got it and he read it multiple times. The result was a ten year old (I’m guessing—we didn’t keep records) who could calculate the probability of rolling 6 or under with three six-sided dice. For the last few years his hobby has been creating games. At the Los Angeles World Science Fiction Convention he had an interesting and productive conversation with Steve Jackson of Steve Jackson Games concerning a game my son had invented; currently one of his ambitions is to get a board game commercially published by age sixteen.
I am fond of evolutionary biology, and so I recommended The Selfish Gene to my daughter. She liked it, found the approach intriguing, and read other things. Currently she is waiting for me to finish The Moral Animal so that we can discuss it. She also likes economics. At this point she has audited four of the classes I teach at the law school, following them at the level of the better students. She also has her own footnote in one of my articles, crediting her with a significant point she contributed to it.
Both kids spend a lot of time online. We discovered that Bill had taught himself to type when the family was playing a networked game on the home network—Diablo or Diablo II—and misspelled words started appearing on our screen. He needed to type because he played games online and wanted to be able to communicate. Later he wanted to learn how to spell so that he wouldn’t look stupid to the people he was communicating with. His sister spends a good deal of time on World of Warcraft, some of it writing up battle reports and other essays to be posted on suitable web sites. She too wants her writing to look good and so consults, usually with her mother, on how best to say things.
I am fond of poetry and know quite a lot of it. When our daughter was little, I used it to put her to sleep. Sometime thereafter we were driving somewhere at night and heard a small voice from the back seat reciting “Lars Porsena of Clusium, by the nine gods he swore”—the opening lines of “Horatius at the Bridge”—in a two-year-old’s lisp. She now knows quite a lot more poetry. When I put my son to bed—my wife and I take turns—we generally talk for a while, then he asks for some poems.
A few years back, I read and recommended to my daughter Duff Cooper’s excellent biography of Talleyrand. She noticed the references to Talleyrand’s memoirs and decided that, since some of her writing involved politics, it would be interesting to learn about it from a world class practitioner. I found her an English translation; she is now part way through the first volume.
Some years ago our daughter decided she was seriously interested in music. Since then she has participated regularly in two choirs—one at her mother’s church, one specializing in early music—and taken harp lessons. She practices because she wants to, not because we make her. She is thinking of majoring in music in college, then trying to get a job as an editor. As some evidence of her qualifications, she has edited some of my manuscripts and done a useful job. Our current plan is for her to do some volunteer proofreading for the firm that published my novel.
But the largest part of their education, after reading, is probably conversation. We talk at meals. We talk when putting one or the other of them to bed. My daughter and I go for long walks at night and spend them discussing the novel I’m writing or the characters she role-plays on World of Warcraft.
Our most recent concern has been getting our daughter, now 17, into college. She doesn’t have grades and she doesn’t have a list of courses taken. She does have a list of books read—still incomplete, but already in the hundreds.
Without grades she needed another way of convincing colleges of her ability, and standardized tests were the obvious solution. She spent some time studying for the SAT exams, but enormously less than the time she would have put in on those subjects in any conventional school, did extremely well on the verbal, tolerably on the math; her combined score is well within the range for the students at the very selective liberal arts colleges she plans to apply to. Just to play safe she has now taken the SAT exams again, after spending a little more time on math, part of it solving pages of simple equations I produced for her. To keep it interesting, I included a few that no value of X solved, a few that all values of X solved, and a few that reduced to 1/x=0.
Many schools now require two of the SAT II achievement tests—again especially significant for a homeschooled student. It turns out that “literature” is not, as I feared, a test of what you have read but of how well you can read, and she reads very well. For a second one she chose American history, read all of Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People—well written and opinionated, hence not boring—plus part of a book of primary source material. She spent a good deal of time in the week before the exam using Wikipedia to compile her own timeline of Presidents and what happened during their terms. The results of both exams were satisfactory.
What is the result? Our daughter will enter college knowing much more about economics, evolutionary biology, music, renaissance dance, and how to write than most of her fellow students, probably less about physics, biology, and world history, except where it intersects historical novels she has read or subjects that interest her. She will know much more than most of them about how to educate herself. And why.
Our daughter spent two years at Oberlin, transferred to the University of Chicago, and ended up majoring in Italian, another of her interests. Along the way she translated, and I webbed, a 15th century Italian cookbook. She is now back with us, developing a career as an online freelance editor. Her brother spent three years at Chicago majoring in history, took last year off to see if he could write a publishable novel. He has written a (very odd) novel which we think is publishable and plan to send to my agent as soon as his sister finishes one more editorial pass on it. If we are right, we see no particular reason why he should go back for a final year of school, but that will be up to him.
 View online at http://skyler.link/dfduelibreb