skip to Main Content

What I’m Learning: Day 6/365

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Last week I finished John Taylor Gotto’s Dumbing Us Down. This week I started Free to Learn by Peter Gray.

This book begins with a powerful story about how Peter Gray and his wife struggled with trying to find an effective way to school his son. Every attempt they made to manage his behavior and get him to conform was met by even more creative attempts by the son to maintain and express his independence. In an effort to find an approach to education that could work for his son, he began to do research on the psychology, anthropology, and history of learning. His research was initially motivated by the fear that he was making some kind of mistake by choosing to homeschool his son, but as delved into his studies more deeply, he began to uncover profound insights that would inspire him to help change how society in general approaches education.

Here’s a passage from the prologue of which I am quite fond:

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb ab unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. They learn to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn to understand and speak the language of the culture into which they are born, and with that they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, and ask questions. They acquire an incredible amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them. All of this is driven by their inborn instincts and drives, their innate playfulness and curiosity. Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.

Gray continues,

Such work led me to understand how children’s strong drives to play and explore serve the function of education, not only in hunter-gatherer cultures but in our culture as well. It led to new insights concerning the environmental conditions that optimize children’s abilities to educate themselves through their own playful means. It led me to see how, if we had the will, we could free children from coercive schooling and provide learning centers that would maximize their ability to educate themselves without depriving them of the rightful joys of childhood.

Further elaborating on the relationship between learning and play (Pages 4-5),

Children are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults. They need freedom in order to develop; without it they suffer. The drive to play freely is a basic, biological drive. Lack of free play may not kill the physical body, as would lack of food, air, or water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth. Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives. It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing. Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or “quality time” or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.

On page 6, Gray states,

Children are biologically predisposed to take charge of their own education. When they are provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges.

Gray charges the traditional schooling system with conditioning an unhealthy attitude in children (Pages 8-10):

The school system has directly and indirectly, often unintentionally, fostered an attitude in society that children learn and progress primarily by doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time.

Related to this anti-play attitude is an ever-increasing focus on children’s performance, which can be measured, and decreasing concern for true learning, which is difficult or impossible to measure. What matters in today’s educational world is performance that can be scored and compared across students, across schools, and even across nations to see who is better and who is worse. Knowledge that is not part of the school curriculum, even deep knowledge, doesn’t count. By “true learning” and “deep knowledge,” I mean children’s incorporation of ideas and information into lasting ways of understanding and responding to the world around them. This is very different from superficial knowledge that is acquired solely for the purpose of passing a test and is forgotten shortly after the test is over.

This focus on performance has moved beyond the classroom to all sorts of extracurricular and out-of-school activities. in the eyes of many parents and educators today, childhood is not so much a time for learning as a time for résumé building. School grades and standardized -test performance “count,” as do formal, adult-directed activities outside of school, especially those that produce trophies, honors, or other forms of positive evaluation by adults. In this way, children and adolescents are coaxed and guided, if not pushed, into adult-organized sports, out-of-school lessons, and adult-directed volunteer activities. Even young children, whose activities won’t realistically go on paper, are directed onto stepping-stones toward later, more explicit  résumé building. Free play doesn’t count because it’s just play; there’s no place for it on a college application.

This is a book I’m going to have a difficult time not underlining. There are so many profound insights here. To conclude this day’s set of notes, here are just a few more highlights from pages 17-20:

Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless. In play, away from adults, children really do have control and can practice asserting it. In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates. In vigorous outdoor play, children deliberately  dose themselves with moderate amounts of fear —as they swing, slide, or twirl on playground equipment, climb on monkey bars or trees, or skateboard down banisters — and they thereby learn how to control not only their bodies, but also their fear. In social play children learn how to negotiate with others, how to please others, and how to modulate and overcome the anger that can arise from conflicts. Free play is also nature’s means of helping children discover what they love. In their play children try out many activities and discover where their talents and predilections lie. None of these lessons can be taught through verbal means; they can be learned only through experience, which free play provides. The predominant emotions of play are interest and joy.

natural selection endowed human children with powerful instincts to educate themselves, and we are foolish to deprive children of the conditions necessary for them to exercise those instincts.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

Neil Gaiman’s Advice to Aspiring Writers

This article was a series of highlights based on a recorded conversation with Neil Gaiman on the Nerdist Podcast.

Here are my two favorite quotes shared by Popova:

If you like fantasy and you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies — Tolkien didn’t read big Tolkienesque fantasies, he read books on Finnish philology. Go and read outside of your comfort zone, go and learn stuff.

I’m a big fan of this perspective. More than ten years ago, I met a jazz musician at a wedding. He was reading a sci-fi novel and I asked he how he became interested in that genre. He told me that his ambition is to be a great composer. “I read sci-fi and fantasy,” he said, “because it unlocks my imagination and opens my mind to a range of possibilities I don’t think about in everyday life.” I was never the same after that conversation. Since then, I’ve always made it a point to periodically visit literary and philosophical spaces that are new for me. It remains one of my favorite practices.

Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.

You can take the same song, have two different artists perform it, and those songs will sound nothing alike. There’s more to words, stories, songs, etc., than the individual components that make up our art. What gives our acts of creativity personality is the energy we bring to the experience. This energy is comprised of our own feelings, beliefs, idiosyncrasies, and so forth. This unique combination of elements is our salvation. This is what makes it possible for us to succeed. We only have to embrace it and keep at the process of expressing it until we’re at home with the sound of our own voice.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalks podcast

James Tooley on Private Schools for the Poor and the Beautiful Tree

For this episode, James Tooley joined Russ Roberts to discuss the experiences and sensitivities that led him into his research regarding private schools for the poor. Early on during his research, Tooley observed how in many parts of India, there were poor families who sent their children to private schools in spite of the fact that there were public schools in their community that offered “free” education, “free” lunch, and “free” uniforms.

Tooley’s research, as presented in his book The Beautiful Tree, refutes the popular assumption that private schools are only for the rich. Tooley notes that there are flourishing private schools for the poor not only in parts of India, but also in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Somalia, and rural China. Many of these private schooling communities emerged out of a homeschooling-styled approach where parents and teachers formed alternative spaces for learning because of the dissatisfaction with public schools. As people began to see the success of these schools, more parents, teachers, and community leaders got involved and improvements in quality and efficiency were rapid. According to Tooley, there is ample evidence to counter the almost dogmatic belief that a free market approach to education would result in the increased marginalization of the poor. The truth, proposes Tooley, is the opposite. Many poor people are being marginalized by the lack of control and choice they have over their educational path in the public systems. The affordable and superior quality of education being made available by entrepreneurs and other community influencers gives far more options to the poor in these countries.

For those who fear the corruptive influence of profit-seeking motives, Tooley says the following:

If they make a profit, what does that mean? What that means in practice is that the entrepreneur keeps keenly aware of what the teachers are doing — are they turning up? Well, if they’re not, then obviously his profits are going to suffer, so he makes sure his teachers are there. Are the children learning? Are the children doing their homework? Are the children doing their assessments? If they’re not, the parents will realize that and seek out better schools where this is happening, they will take their children elsewhere….”profit,” what does it mean? Well, it’s not a dirty word. It means accountability. It means checking up on teachers, making sure they turn up. It means accountability to parents, making sure the children are learning. So I say to people who say “profits are a bad thing,” I say “Forget it! It’s not a dirty word. It means high standards are kept, high standards are ensured because it keeps people on their toes.

To this point, Roberts adds, “One of the saddest, most powerful sections of the book is called ‘poor ignoramuses’ where you talk about the attitudes of some of the bureaucrats and experts towards these parents, who are desperately eager, as all parents are, to see their kids thrive and now are finding a way to make that happen, and yet the outside world can’t seem to imagine it.”

Tooley expresses his belief that many poor parents and entrepreneurs have a much better understanding of economics than many of the people involved in the politics of public schooling:

I think I can safely say that I learned a lot of my understanding about the virtues of markets, competition, incentives, I learned a lot of this stuff not through reading Hayek or Milton Friedman, but from talking to parents and entrepreneurs about what they were doing and they were saying stuff that spelled out all these virtues — competition, how the market worked, how the market dealt with problems of sloppy teachers or the occasional bad-apple entrepreneur — all this stuff, I learned by talking to the people in these poor communities themselves. It was an extraordinary learning experience.

Clarifying the possible misunderstanding that he’s against public school teachers, Tooley notes,

Some people read my book and think I’m condemning public school teachers. No, no. I’m not condemning them, individually. I’m condemning the system. You meet some really good souls in these public schools who say “only three of teachers come to school regularly out of nine or ten. I can’t do anything about it. I didn’t have any role in selecting these teachers. I can’t do anything about getting rid of them. And I just have to accept what I’m given.’

There is much more to this conversation than what I have documented. As someone who’s deeply involved and interested in alternative education,  I’m quite intrigued by Tooley’s research and this interview has inspired me to read his book.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Jonathan Webber on Deception With Words

There isn’t much I feel the need to document or remember from this conversation, but I did find the topic to be quite fascinating. Webber discussed some of the different ways we can, and do, deceived people without technically lying. He makes some interesting observations about truth-telling, credibility, unwritten rules of social interaction, conversational Implicature, and he even philosophizes about the concept of “bullshit.” While I take no clear advice or pragmatic tip from this discussion, I enjoy doing the kind of thinking this episode invited me to do.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Economics in One Lesson: Part 5 | Robert P. Murphy

Murphy joins Jeffrey Tucker to discuss a concept known as “The Curse of Machinery.” Summarizing the idea, Murphy says,

Anytime a new technique is developed that is a labor saving device, the people fear because they think “Oh you’re throwing people out of work” and so machinery is a curse because its just causing unemployment. And so, therefore, we ought to resist the introduction of new machines sometimes with the caveat… “as long as the machine isn’t putting people out of labor, it’s a good machine. But if it causes the firm to lay off some people because now we have the machine doing the job of ten men, then that’s obviously bad.”

Using the automobile industry as an example, Murphy points out that technological innovation actually improves human labor by creating new industries, making old forms of labor easier, improving our overall quality of life, and freeing up human energy for more creative endeavors.

Murphy also points out the fact that all innovations have a learning curve where our lives take a short-term hit due to our need to adapt to change. The resistance we have to change often comes from the short-sightedness that mistakes the learning curve for the full reality.

Activity XI: Watch on TED talk

Erin McKean: Go ahead, make up new words!

Lexicographer, Erin McKean, opens her brief talk by discussing the evolution of language in terms of human usage. She introduces herself as someone who writes dictionaries and quickly points out that her job has nothing to do with deciding what words mean. “That’s your job,” she says. People decide what words mean and dictionaries merely keep track of how language evolves based on the agreements human beings make with each other regarding how they should be understood  She then bemoans the fact that we’re encouraged to be creative in almost every area of life except for how we use language:

People are always telling you, ‘be creative. Make new music. Do art. Invent things: science and technology. And then when it comes to words, they’re like “no, no. Creativity stops right here, whippersnapper.

She goes on to talk about why we should reclaim our right to make up new words (it expresses our creative power and gives us more freedom in our efforts to communicate the ideas that really matter to us) and she provides a few tips on how to make up words of your own.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Study Hacks

Warren Buffett On Goals: If It’s Not The Most Important Thing, Avoid It At All Costs &  Deep Habits: Forget Your Project Ideas (Until You Can’t Forget Them)

I read two blog posts from Study Hacks today because they were both connected to a them I’ve been contemplating quite a bit as of late. My colleague, Isaac Morehouse, recently wrote a post on the Praxis blog called on Opportunities That 98% of People Should Take But You Shouldn’t. In that post he makes the following point:

When you start to find your groove and get a lot of stuff done you will be in high demand. You’ll compile a network of interesting people. You’ll have no shortage of projects. Inevitably, a phenomenal opportunity will be presented to you. One that would be a no-brainer for anyone to jump on. Except you. One of your defining moments is likely to be the day you say no to an opportunity that almost everyone else would and should say yes to. If you spend your life doing the sensible thing that everyone else is trying to do, and taking every opportunity that others say they’d kill for, at some point you will stop being you. You’ll be the sum of “good” decisions in the aggregate.

This emphasis on the importance of focus and constructive minimalism is echoed in both of Cal Newport’s articles I mentioned above. In the post on Warren Buffet, he tells the story of someone who came to Buffet for advice on how they can improve their chances for professional success. Buffet advised him to make a list of the 25 most important things to him, then he told him to circle the top 5 items on that list. According to Newport,

All seemed well until the wise Billionaire asked one more question: “What are you going to do with the other twenty things?”

The employee answered: “Well the top five are my primary focus but the other twenty come in at a close second. They are still important so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit as I’m getting through my top five. They are not as urgent but I still plan to give them dedicated effort.”

Buffett surprised him with his response: “No. You’ve got it wrong…Everything you didn’t circle just became your ‘avoid at all cost list.’”

Newport offers this warning to our low attention span, high interruption generation:

spending time on lower priority goals, even though they’re helpful and generate value, can leave you worse off than if you had avoided them all together.

These behaviors are sold to us with the promise that they offer some benefit (e.g., “you never know, the contact you make on Facebook might end up bringing you new business”) – but they do so at the cost of stealing time from the harder efforts that are guaranteed to return a lot of benefit (e.g., make your product too good to be ignored).

It’s with this in mind that it’s useful to remember Buffett’s caution: Don’t just prioritize what’s most important, but support this prioritization by avoiding everything that’s not.

In his Deep Habits article, Newport makes similar points about the importance of excluding non-essential activities in order to do high-level work. In the spirit of Derek Sivers’s “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a hell no,” Newport advises,

Keeping track of project ideas, in my experience, is usually a waste of time. I used to fear that if I didn’t capture and review my sparks of brilliance I’d forget them and an opportunity for impact would be lost.

The reality, however, is that most people (myself included) have way more ideas for things to work on than they have time to work. Forgetting ideas is not your problem. Having too many ideas competing for your attention to execute any one well is a more pressing concern.

(This notion that ideas are cheap and execution valuable is not, of course, new: it’s been circulating through Silicon Valley start-up circles for a while…)

But my dismissal of tracking project ideas is about more than the relative unimportance of ideas compared to execution. I argue that the refusal to implement a system for curating these ideas provides an active strategy for figuring out what to work on.

In more detail, in recent years I’ve found that a useful criteria for selecting an idea to deliberately attack (both in academia and my book writing) is that it won’t leave me alone; it keeps coming back to my attention even though I’m not trying to remind myself about it.

I think these are all key ideas to keep in mind. Understanding the concept of “opportunity costs,” as it applies to our daily routines is essential to a productive and flourishing life. We often focus on transaction costs (ie. “it’ll only take one hour of your time) or vague appeals to possible benefits (ie. “you never know what good may come of it”), rather than taking a hard honest look at the specific forms of value we may fail to cultivate should we spread our focus across too many activities. I spent some time this weekend developing some systems that will allow me to enhance my productivity and most of these systems involve the identification and elimination of non-essential activities. This is a very difficult exercise, but I have deep faith that this kind of deep habit will be deeply rewarding.

Back To Top