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.


  1. Asking student what they want to learn is probably a good idea. Nothing is best for good learning than a good motivation. Any student knows that.

    You use an example from your son to prove the point. I think it is a good example. Your son was around 18 when he decided (with some guidance from you) to study about what he knew (trains in this case). A question springs to mind... When do we start asking students?

    Do we ask college students what they want to learn? They are kind of mature and may have a clear idea of what they want. Actually, they have to choose a degree anyway, so it seems fine.

    Do we ask high schoolers what they want to learn? Will they know or will they change radically from one year to the next?

    Do we ask children what they want to learn? Do we ask toddlers what they want to learn?

    Should we direct them at some point? When? Do we set some common grounds for all to learn or do we embrace total disparity of knowledge and skills in the population from the earliest ages?

    Looking forward to listening to you next week in London.

  2. I think the answer to "when should we start asking them what they want to learn" is AS EARLY AS POSSIBLE. My son is three and is obsessed with roller coasters. I mean he could watch them over and over and over again on our Ipad (which he knows how to use better than I do). So we have given him access to as many roller coaster things as we can- mostly in books and videos. While he is only three and probably couldn't think of an actual career right now, there is something about roller coasters that I know will eventually help him find his career path. We are all born with desires and passions... what happens is school drills this out of us by forcing us to only know school subjects (roller coasters are rarely a subject in school!). At every moment of our lives, we should be following some kind of passion... even if it seems unrelated to a job. They are always leading us in the direction of our best career... even at age three.