Wednesday, May 21, 2014

An Important Lesson I Plan on Teaching My Children

In elementary school, most subjects weren't too difficult for me.  I could blast through reading, social studies, and science with no problems.  But math was another matter.  It didn't come easily.  This led me to the conclusion that I wasn't good at math because I wasn't a "math person."  Throughout my primary school years and into my middle and high school years, I struggled with mathematics.  In high school, I wanted to get a good GPA to make college scholarships more available.  This meant avoiding as much math as possible.  Of course, this didn't help me on the SAT and ACT, considering I had no clue what a cosign or tan were (I still don't).

My frustration tolerance level was low.  At the earliest signs of difficulty, I would give up.  I made it through algebra I, geometry, and algebra II.  That was the end of my mathematics education.  Although I enjoyed science, the mathematics portion was very challenging for me.  This also meant my career opportunities were limited.  I wouldn't be attending medical school or majoring in physics.  Since my natural strengths were in the humanities, I ended up going to a liberal arts school and receiving a bachelor of arts degree.

With age, my patience in dealing with frustration has increased.  Now that I am within a few years of forty, I don't feel like my self-esteem and self-worth are tied to my grades or my failures.  I don't feel the need to prove anything to anyone.  I no longer worry about seeking the approval of older authority figures.  This has been very freeing.  I feel more comfortable taking intellectual risks and failing.  I don't mind being more playful in my approach to solving problems.  This is enormously freeing.  It allows me to actually have fun solving problems instead of seeing them as existential threats or indicators that I am unintelligent.  If I would have known this as a child and later as an adolescent, my life might have been very different.

The concern I have is that the current educational system does little to encourage the playful and creative approach to problem solving that people need to be successful in life.  By awarding grades, it encourages perfectionistic children to avoid risk and avoid challenges.  It discourages the kind of intellectual risk taking and playfulness in problem solving that is so vital to life and living in a new, constantly changing, technological society.

It murders the natural curiosity of young learners.  If I had the money, I would send my children to Montessori school.  I worry about their futures.  I really worry about all the standardized tests that children are expected to take.  Memorizing facts and filling in bubbles on forms is not the sort of education that builds a love of learning or encourages creativity.  In a world filled with smartphones that can access all of the world's knowledge and compute equations with little difficulty, I don't see the point in memorizing facts.  I would rather my children learn how to do research on the computer and then use this information to synthesize it and solve difficult problems.  The future is going to require them to work with computers, not calculate basic math in their heads or memorize a list of historical dates.

As a child, I assumed that you were naturally good at some things and not good at others.  Some people were born lucky, others were not.  No sense in trying to improve the things you weren't good at.  I didn't have the notion that with deliberate practice and extreme effort, one could achieve great things.  I didn't see Michael Jordan practicing for hours.  I believed talent was innate.  If I had had a different view of human nature--one that led me to believe that talent was the result of hard work, and that the brain was like a muscle that needed strengthening to really improve, this would have done me an enormous amount of good.  Had I possessed more grit and a different philosophy, things might have been very different for me.

I want my children to learn the lessons I failed to learn until middle age.  If I were independently wealthy, I would quit my law job and dedicate 100% of my time individually tutoring my children based on the classics, active learning projects like learning how to prepare microscope slides, conducting experiments, writing letters, programming computers, and visiting museums.  My wife was home schooled and learned to love learning for its own sake.  To this day, she spends hours each day reading up on her various interests.  Our home is like a college seminar as we watch TED talks and graduate school lectures on Youtube.

I hope my children learn that you can do far more than you might think.  80% of success is just having the courage to try.  Most people give up before they get started.  "That is for experts," and "I don't know how to do that" are the famous last words of someone about to get his wallet drained by a professional widget installer.

"Try goddamnit."

 I wish I knew this years ago.  Better late than never.  Maybe by tackling tough projects together, my children will learn that few problems are so large that persistence, planning, and practice cannot solve them.

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