Learning Like a Slumdog (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 2)

There’s a new buzz word in education and, for once, it’s a good one. It’s “executive function.” This term refers to the ability of a person to supervise and organize his own cognitive processes to achieve success in tasks presented to him. Executive function is the key to how a person functions in the world around him and is the number one predictor of success in school and work.

This is a huge step forward for educators to acknowledge that it’s not what a person knows or even the basic skills he possesses that’s important. But it’s how he manages his thinking and applies it to life.

Since the beginning of organized education, schools have been focused on building basic academic skills (reading, writing, etc.) and imparting large bodies of information (history, science, etc.) These things aren’t inherently bad, but they are only the building blocks of learning, and not even the most important ones at that. When we spend 13+ years focused on imparting details and working on preparations, we rob children of the time to engage in real learning. It’s like spending all your time accumulating the ingredients, but never getting to bake the cake. Or training to kick or hit a ball, but never getting in a game.

In schools, we have reduced learning to basic skills and information and we have bored our children to death in the process, leading to a massive lack of learning. It reminds me of the time my husband took my five-year-old nephew skiing for the first time. Before he let him loose on the beginners’ slope, my husband tried to explain to him all the ins and outs of skiing down a hill without breaking your neck. About halfway through the speech, my nephew interrupted him and said, “Can I PLEASE just ski down the hill now?’ He then took off straight down the hill at breakneck speed.

I really don’t remember if my nephew made it to the bottom of the hill on his feet or if he crashed halfway down. It doesn’t really matter. Because, no doubt, he learned more about skiing in the 30 seconds it took him to fly down that bunny hill than he could have learned in 30 minutes in my husband’s beginner ski class. Real learning occurs from properly executing in real life situations, or learning from your mistakes when you don’t. That’s how children and adults employ and improve executive function.

Executive function is both an inherited and acquired ability. But it’s not a learned skill. You can’t take a class on it. You can’t break it down into blocks of learning and you can’t measure it’s growth with any kind of standardized measurement. Executive function improves through trial and error in real life situations. Schools and “schoolish” activities are not the place to learn executive function.

In my last blog, I promised to write practical ways homeschool parents can help children develop their brains and higher level thinking processes (executive functioning) for the 21st century. I still plan to do that. But, I can’t move forward with that until I point out what homeschool parents should NOT do. What you should NOT do is more important than everything you SHOULD do put together. Here it is:

Stop doing school.

That’s it. So simple, yet so hard for most homeschool parents. If you can’t bring yourself to completely stop (I haven’t), then delay, postpone, or cut back. WAY back. Stop wasting everyone’s time teaching things that don’t matter and/or can be self-taught at a later date (using executive function). Instead, free up your child’s schedule to start engaging in activities of their own choosing where real-world “problems” can be addressed. As children start engaging and solving problems in the world around them, they get smarter. And they naturally pick up and learn those basic skills and pieces of information that teachers want students to know in the process.

One of the most amazing experiments related to how children learn was conducted in 1999 by Dr. Sugata Mitra. Famously titled, The “Hole in the Wall Project,” Mitra, while serving as chief scientist at a leading software company in New Delhi, embedded a high-speed computer linked to the Internet in a hole in a wall in a slum in Kalkaji, Delhi. Mitra wanted to see if the children who lived in the slum, none of which had access to computers in their homes, schools or communities, would discover it on their own and teach themselves how to work it. He provided no written or verbal instruction about how to use the computer before he walked away.

When Mitra returned at the end of the day, a large group of children was huddled around the computer. They had already figured out how to use a little hand-held device called a “mouse” to link between their isolated slum in India and the rest of the world via the Internet. Within two months, the children were using the Web in sophisticated ways to explore their interests, learn new concepts, paint, record music, and play games on the Disney web site. Not only did they accomplish this without a teacher or instruction, they also had to teach themselves the English language as they went along.

This is the way executive function works when the brain is firing on all cylinders and the environment for learning is right. Give a child time and reason to learn and his capacity to make it happen escalates proportionately. It’s no longer about what he knows or has stored in his memory, but his willingness to collect, process, and apply NEW information to the problem at hand. This is the skill needed to function well in the 21st century.

Today, Mitra operates 30+ “learning stations” across India that engage in what he calls “self-organizing learning environments” or “minimally invasive education.” His schools were the inspiration for the movie Slumdog Millionaire, which won 7 Academy Awards. Last year Mitra was awarded the prestigious $1 million Ted prize, which is awarded to one extraordinary individual each year who has a bold and creative vision capable of inspiring the world and sparking global change. You can watch Mitra’s fascinating Ted Talk here.

As homeschooling parents, we should take our lead from Mitra. Rather than modeling our homeschools on traditional schools, we would do better to replicate the unique learning environment of Mitrra’s slum experiment. We need to kick the kids out of the classroom and into the real world where they can discover and explore things of real interest and are inspired to solve problems of worth.

Until next time…Be fearless.

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3 thoughts on “Learning Like a Slumdog (Homeschooling in a Virtual Age Part 2)

  1. Wow! All these years of homeschooling and it has always taken me lots of words to describe what my goal was with my children’s thinking. Now I have one phrase–executive function. Thanks for putting a bow on that thought process for me!

  2. Excellent post, although I am not a traditional homeschooler my child is online through a charter school I feel that I have some control over her education. In fact I work as a Para educator part time I have an inside scoop on the pros and cons of public school. So that is why I am grateful to have an alternative to the main stream. The major flaw I see in our schools today is that the schools are forced to teach for taking standardized tests, This gets in the way of what I like to call inspired learning, which I try to incorporate in my daughter’s school week. I look to her for interest, like her art or writing and we make time for it! Great post and I look forward to more, Happy Blogging, Allie

    • I always enjoy hearing about the different ways parents meet the needs of their children, whether it’s through homeschooling or other alternative forms of education. And I agree with your thoughts on standardized tests.

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