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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Educators need to stop telling students what they should learn and should start asking them what they want to learn. How crazy an idea is that?

I am in London as I write this. I have been riding the trains to get to places like Brighton and Sunbury for business meetings. I love riding trains.

Now, ordinarily the fact that I love trains would be of little interest to anyone, but there is more to the story.

Some years ago, when I was trying to get my father, who was over 80 and visiting me at the time, to do something he didn’t want to do, I told him we could ride the Chicago subway to get there and he immediately agreed.

OK. So my father and I both like trains. I loved riding down to Florida when I was a kid and waking up in Jacksonville after an all night trip from New York and seeing the sun shine and feeling warmth everywhere. My father and I rode together while my mother slept in a sleeping compartment. My love of trains started early. So just childhood unconscious emotional stuff right?

Except both of my grandsons, ages 5 and 3 as I write this love trains. Actually obsessed with trains is more like it. One lives in New York City and the other in Washington D.C. They each know every train and route in their respective cities and generally demand to watch trains when I play with them on Grandparent Games.

Is there a train-loving gene? Certainly it would have to be a very recent mutation, so it is a silly idea. And besides, my daughter, whose son is the 5 year old in New York, never seemed to be fascinated by trains.

Of course, I left out my son, the one who has a PhD in transportation and runs a Transportation policy think tank in Washington. My son was so obsessed with trains as a kid that when I showed him the Paris Metro when he was 10 (we had just moved there for a year) he said “why have you been keeping this from me?”

Train gene or not, the point of this story is to talk about education of course, and to talk about how school needs to be re-structured. My son did fine in high school but he wasn’t passionate about much. He decided he wanted to be a history major when he arrived at Columbia University as a freshman. (He chose Columbia because there were trains he ride there of course. He almost died when I suggested Cornell or Princeton.)

I was (and am) a non-typical father, one who always felt happy to direct my children’s pursuits and one who was a college professor and knew a bit about universities. So I told him history was off the table as I saw no point in studying it, and that he should major in subways. He was shocked. “How do you major in subways?” he asked. I said I was sure there were people who did transportation at Columbia and to find them. He signed up for a graduate seminar in his first semester there (putting off a required humanities course) and figured it out from there, later going to MIT for a Masters in Transportation and returning to Columbia for the PhD.

My son loves his work because he is, and always was passionate about trains (and later on planes).

Schools need to allow children of any age to follow their passions. Educators need to stop telling students what they should learn and should start asking them what they want to learn. How crazy an idea is that?

As for the genetics I don’t care really. But there is solid male line of train loving in my family.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

For homeschoolers, education reformers, and open-minded citizens: a paraphrase of Montaigne

Our teachers never stop talking, as if they were pouring water into a funnel. Our task is only to repeat what they told us. Teachers need to stop doing this and instead begin have student try to do things, choose among options, make decisions for themselves, and let them find their own way. Schools want to take different students who have different ways of thinking and make them take the same courses and tests. It is no wonder that most children really learn nothing from this experience. I wish that actors or dancers could teach us to do what they do, simply by performing before us, without us moving from our seats. I wish that we could be taught to cook, or to play the piano, or learn to sing, without practicing at it. School wants to teach us to judge well and speak well without having us practice either speaking or judging.

This is a paraphrase in modern terms of Michel de Montaigne's thoughts on education taken from Essays:Book One published in 1572.