Tag Archives: Education

What did you learn from that?

Children’s education is a big topic. We scrutinise everything they do and look for its educational value. We wonder what they’re learning. If they choose an activity in which we see no learning potential, we disapprove, and show our disapproval in a variety of ways. We may say they are wasting their time. We may try to steer them towards a more “worthy” activity, one that we feel has more learning value. We may also ask them: “So what did you learn from that?”. 

And that’s a rhetorical question of course. We simply won’t be satisfied with any answer they give us, because we’re not really expecting an answer, we just want them to agree with us and feel bad about how they’ve just spent their time.

Reality, of course, is quite different. Of course they’ve learned worthwhile things. However, instead of discussing the list of things worth learning, I want to talk about the hypocrisy of asking such a question. Then I’ll discuss the nature of learning, and the difference between content and context.

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Posted by on August 3, 2014 in Life, Psychology and Sociology


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Learning by doing


Joshua, 2 1/2 years old, learns to use a sewing machine to sew a felt pouch for his toy fire engine

Joshua will not be going to school, for reasons I have explained earlier. He will not be “home schooled” either. When I told a young lady about this today, she appeared horrified and muttered “You can’t do that, it’s illegal!”. I hope she thinks about it a little more, but shock is a good start.

What is Joshua doing in this video? He’s learning, and loving it! He didn’t have to be bribed, threatened or praised, he just wanted to do it. That is how children learn. We are not here to educate them, but to provide them with the resources, guidance, safety and autonomy they need to explore the world on their own terms. Joshua will be “educated” that way. It works. Some call it “unschooling”. I prefer the term “natural learning“.


Posted by on July 20, 2012 in Life, Psychology and Sociology


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Reflections on Ivan Illich, #1

I am currently reading 2 of Ivan Illich’s eye-opening books, “deschooling society” and “tools of conviviality”. I’ve been highlighting many passages from these books, and making occasional side notes. I think I should share some of these here on this blog. So here comes the first, in the context of my first clinical psychology placement coming to an end.

I find it amazing that, to learn to become a psychologist, we must sit down and endure the pedagogy of other psychologists–despite their common lack of teaching skills–while being completely restrained from observing them in the exercise of the very skills they are presumably trying to teach us.

From such a model of skill transmission, only one learning outcome is guaranteed: the factual knowledge that certain lecturing psychologists have slightly less of a soporific effect on their audience than most!


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Pro-schooling propaganda and poor journalism

Today a provocative article was published by Ian Townsend on the ABC News website. The title is:

Thousands of parents illegally home schooling

As is customary in cheap journalism, the title deals the first underhanded and disingenuous blow: home schooling is an illegal activity! This is effectively the message that will be taken by anyone who is just reading the headlines.

Since I didn’t just read the headline, I’ll go on with the rest of the article, and explain why I think it’s a piece of propaganda and poor journalism.

The sub-heading, perhaps the next most likely piece of writing that most people will read, states:

“As a new school year begins, more than 50,000 Australian children will be home-schooled and in most cases, their parents are doing it illegally.”

Where is the source for these figures? They are not discussed anywhere in the article. This might just pass as poor journalism, but it’s also part of the propaganda, because the message once again is that, if you know a family who is home-schooling, they’re probably breaking the law. Since the article only talks about home schooling in Queensland, such assertions are even more unwarranted.

The first paragraph demonstrates poor writing:

It is compulsory to send children between the ages of six and 16 to school, or register them for home schooling, but more parents are opting out of the traditional school system and keeping their children at home.

If parents decide to register their children for home schooling, aren’t they also opting out of the traditional school system and keeping their children at home? Let’s simplify the sentence to show why it’s flawed:

It is compulsory to register children for traditional or home schooling, but more parents are keeping their children at home.

Do you see how little sense it makes? As originally written, this paragraph again makes it sound like parents who home school are doing it illegally.

The next section starts with the heading “Underground education“. The propaganda continues. By labelling such movement as “underground”, the author not only points out the illegality of their actions, he also associates with them a number of sinister behaviours such as drug dealing. It conjures images of parents secretly locking their children up at home, looking out of their windows to make sure the police isn’t coming, and living isolated from the rest of the country.

In this section, the author decided to use Cindy as an example of an “underground home schooler”. The reason he chose her is pretty simple: she purportedly said some words that discredit home schoolers in general: “I’m not very organised and disciplined”. Again, the reader who is already suspicious of home schooling will probably shake her head in disbelief, muttering “How can you possibly home school your kids if you’re disorganised?”.

The next paragraph is proof that the author has not done his homework on the topic, and that he doesn’t understand the real issues involved. He states that, due to secrecy and suspicion (again, this is in the domain of the home schooler, giving an impression of paranoia), it is difficult to get data on “whether home schooling produces a better or worse education“.

First of all, there is plenty of evidence that home schooling, when done properly, leads to better-adjusted children who are better prepared for the work force and for the demands of adulthood, than children who are traditionally schooled, even when that traditional schooling is excellent. The author suggests that there is not enough information, therefore the “underground home schoolers” don’t even know if what they’re doing is any better than traditional schooling. Another blow against home schoolers.

Secondly, what does it mean to “produce” an education? How do you measure the goodness or badness of an education? What home schoolers argue is that each child has unique developmental and educational needs and abilities, and that mass schooling, due to its one-size-fits-all approach, cannot possibly enable that child to thrive as it would given the ideal environment and opportunities. The criteria by which you will judge the quality of a child’s education are likely to be rooted in an ideology that is external, and probably not beneficial, to the child.

Finally, the last section “Why home school?” is by far the worst of all. It starts with the results of two unreferenced surveys, asking registered home schoolers why they chose to home school. The author then chose to list the major reasons in an interesting order. Even though religious reasons were not the highest reason in either study, he decided to list it first in both of them. It’s hard not to believe that he did this with the increasingly anti-religious Australian in mind, further fuelling the reader’s mistrust of home schoolers.

Interestingly, the most oft-given answer related to philosophical reasons, but none of these reasons were explained by the author, and he even failed to report an exact figure (“nearly half”). Instead, he chose to quote from a Stanford University sociologist and prominent critic of home schooling, Rob Reich, who essentially proclaimed that all home schoolers are paranoid.

To top it all off, the author chose to conclude with the wise words of Hanne Worsoe, acting manager of the Queensland Home Education Unit:

Standards exist for a reason and they’re about the kids not about the parents and their ideas about what they should do, that’s why we live in a civil society that provides that capacity to represent children and to monitor their educational needs. If people aren’t registered I’d say you’re breaking the law, and if you’re doing the right thing by your kids you’ve got nothing to hide.

I could write another entire post on this quote, but let’s just write a dot points:

  • “Standards exist for a reason”: does it matter if that is reason is valid?
  • “Standards are about the kids, not about the parents and their ideas about what they should do”: in essence, Hanne, you’re saying “we know better”, even though you don’t even know the kids’ names? How condescending, how arrogant!
  • “That’s why we live in a civil society”: please explain the connection between civility and compulsory schooling, because I don’t see it.
  • a civil society that provides that capacity to represent children and to monitor their educational needs“: Society needs to represent children? How does it do that through compulsory schooling? Why can’t parents represent their children through their choice of how to educate them? Why do they have to be monitored externally?
  • if you’re doing the right thing by your kids you’ve got nothing to hide”: Again, how do you know what is “the right thing”? What you really mean is “if you’re doing what we want you to do, you’ve got nothing to hide”.

So, the mistrust and stigmatisation continues: home schoolers are no more than paranoid criminals who secretly take their children away from the schools where they belong, to foment rebellion and anarchy.

What a load of codswallop! You can do better than that, Ian Townsend!


Posted by on January 28, 2012 in Life, Psychology and Sociology


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The needs of a weed

Here is a hypothetical story:

A student has discovered that, through higher education, she can access information and resources that enable her to indulge in one of her passions: teaching.

She is intrinsically motivated to study and work on that topic, even though that is only peripheral to her course of study (psychology).
She loves the intellectual and relational contact with academic staff and other students.

She accepts that she needs to work on the rest of the prescribed curriculum in order to continue pursuing her deep interests, but has decided to only put enough work in less interesting topics so that she can pass and eventually graduate.

She sees her formal qualification as just a stepping-stone towards the development of her research interests.

From the university’s point of view, she is a low performing student, she may even be considered at risk of failing, but what exactly is she failing?
Isn’t she getting what she wants and needs from her education?

She’s like a weed: growing where she’s not expected to, thriving on good soil, unwanted by the gardeners because her outputs are not considered valuable.

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Posted by on September 17, 2011 in Psychology and Sociology


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The purpose of higher education

University student

Doesn't she just look passionate and enthralled?

Meet Jan, a 19-year-old young woman, who has just started a three-year undergraduate degree in psychology at a West Australian University. She’s excited about the subject and about the opportunities for new friendships. She’s also nervous and unsure about her abilities to cope with the high demands of higher education, including writing essays, conducting literature research and dealing with the dreaded but compulsory field of inferential statistics. She also feels rather overwhelmed by the amount of text she is supposed to read in just 4 short months, and wonders how she will ever achieve all of this. However, she is committed to this subject, she wants to become a psychologist, help people in need, and she’s very interested in understanding how people think and why they do what they do.

If this sounds familiar to you, try to remember the time when you were in Jan’s shoes. How enthusiastic were you about your studies? How energised did you feel each morning as you got out of bed, thinking about the lectures you had scheduled to attend that day? How curious did you feel as you delved into your textbooks, especially those without any pictures in them? Have you ever experienced academic burn-out, and how did it affect your performance?

When I speak to my fellow students, I often ask them about what motivates them to keep studying despite the multitude of challenges. Almost universally, I see no passion for the subject they once may have cared for. Instead I see a focus on obtaining grades, and obsessing with what these grades mean for them as a person and for their future career. I see students who cram for exams, certain that their ultimate achievement as a student is to receive the highest possible mark. I see fatigue, a great deal of emotional, psychological and physical fatigue that sometimes strains their relationships and can lead to burn-out and attrition.

Despite these challenges, most of the students I know achieve extraordinarily well, getting High Distinctions and honours, and most of the time get much higher grades than me. The question is, are they still enthusiastic about what they learned last year, or 2 years ago? Do they go back to re-read some journal articles or textbooks they enjoyed? Do they continue to perform statistical analyses on their data a whole year after submitting their honours thesis? In other words, did their study lead to true learning and personal growth, and are they more dedicated to learning today than they were last year? Has their true potential been reached, or have there been some constraints, possibly systemic constraints, on their growth?

Even more importantly: are self-actualisation and vitality measured by Universities? Should they be? Can we assume that all students who receive an undergraduate degree have obtained the maximum possible benefits from their three years of dedicated study, just because they got good grades and met all the requirements? What should we assume about those who fail or drop out? Did they fail, or did the system fail them? Maybe we shouldn’t assume anything, but that is a tough call in the context of Australian higher education.

Perhaps we shouldn’t assume either that the purpose of higher education is to educate, promote personal growth, and stimulate creativity and natural curiosity. Perhaps it has become something else, something used for other, less lofty purposes.

If that’s the case, then I’m going to do something about it. My honours thesis was the first step.


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Threats to my intrinsic motivation

Well that’s a bummer. Apparently last Friday I didn’t write my 750 words, falling short by only 20 words. I think there must have been a bug in the system, because I distinctly remember seeing the little green popup saying something, although I’m not 100% sure that something was the congratulations for having reached the limit.

So now I’ve failed the May challenge, with only 3 days to go, and I’ve broken my 35 day streak. Initially I was pretty upset about this, and feeling a bit demoralised. I seriously considered stopping this daily writing so I can have more time to spend on other things.

However, I realise that I had already broken the challenge before on those days when I just copy-pasted earlier blog posts instead of writing original stuff. That was really silly. Why am I doing this 750 words thing? To get the longest running streak? To get badges? To feel good about myself and boast to others about how well I’m doing? As much as it makes me feel ashamed, it seems that these are indeed some of the reasons I’ve been doing it.

However, there are other reasons too that are still valid:

  • Writing each day helps me to reflect on what I’ve done and learned during the day.
  • It helps me to see some of the lessons of the day that I might miss if I don’t take the time to write.
  • It helps me to keep the habit of writing, converting the content of my thoughts into electronic, written form, which will be a great help when I get stuck into my PhD.
  • Finally, I simply enjoy writing.

There are many benefits to this writing habit, and I value all of them enough to continue writing even though I didn’t complete the challenge this month, and broke my streak.

Thinking more about it now, I have decided that, on days when it’s really not convenient or even possible to write 750 meaningful words, I’ll just skip it. It’s important and useful, but it’s not a priority that overrides all others. I don’t want to care about having a long running streak, and I don’t want to care about earning any rewards other than those that are intrinsic in the process of writing. I enjoy writing, so why do I need any other incentives?

In fact, if I feel that my entry was meaningful and helpful enough, I won’t even worry about reaching the 750 word limit. I understand that this limit is set because, on average, it tends to take deeper thought and soul-searching to come up with that many words, but sometimes I get to that level before this limit. For example, today’s entry has already helped me to reflect on my daily writing, and to decide that I should continue with it, but not be as inflexible as I have been in the past. Knowing what I know about intrinsic motivation should have informed me about this detrimental effect of extrinsic rewards.

What am I talking about? Interestingly, over and over again the lessons of life take me back to what I’ve learned about self-determination and the quality of motivation. When you really enjoy doing something for its own sake, you tend to be naturally motivated to do that thing, you don’t need external rewards or even personal challenges. However, if you get the promise of external rewards or set yourself a challenge for that particular activity (e.g. writing, painting etc.), it tends to undermine this intrinsic motivation, and you are more likely to discontinue this activity, whether or not you get the reward or achieve your challenge. Unfortunately our society is very focused on extrinsic rewards, competition and measurable achievements, so our natural inclinations towards certain activities tends to be stifled.

I have felt this many times, particularly in regards to music. I first got interested in playing the piano when my parents bought us a cheap Pink Panther piano-accordion toy. They noticed that I used to play some recognisable tunes on the keyboard, so they talked and talked and eventually decided to buy an upright, acoustic piano and get me signed up for one-on-one home lessons when I was 8. That purchase represented a very large expense for them, and was a great sacrifice, something I didn’t understand until a few years ago when I temporarily re-acquired this piano and found the invoice for its purchase inside its cover.

Piano Hand

The piano, extension of my soul...

Now, my parents had noticed an intrinsic motivation in me towards playing the piano, and they built upon that by buying one for me. That was an excellent move on their part. Having one-on-one lessons was also fantastic. However, I wasn’t always very motivated to perform the exercises given by the teacher, because I didn’t have a lot of choice in what these exercises were (lack of autonomy thwarts intrinsic motivation). I was very confident in my own abilities though (high competence promotes intrinsic motivation) and I got along well with the teacher (high relatedness promotes intrinsic motivation). So, for the first few years of learning the piano, I did really well and motivation wasn’t an issue.

Later on, however, we moved to a larger town and I joined a music school. My interests for the piano wavered for a while, and my parents got worried that I would stop practicing and waste my talent (as well as the piano!). To help me get back to it, they started nagging me to do my exercises, reminding me how much money they had spent on the piano, and how I was wasting my talent etc. I don’t remember if they set up any reward system, but I certainly remember the negative reinforcement of the nagging. This really didn’t help my intrinsic motivation, but occasionally I found myself attracted to the ivories and playing for the pleasure of it.

Today I have no reward system surrounding playing the piano, no outward pressures to perform, and I absolutely relish any and all opportunities I have to play. I love taking very challenging pieces of music and slowly, painstakingly playing through them, enjoying the beautiful chords and melodies (particularly Rachmaninov and Chopin). The fact that I don’t even have a keyboard at home (something I tend to remedy soon, hopefully!) makes these opportunities even more rare and enjoyable. I often play just for the pure enjoyment of it, and I don’t care whether or not I sound clumsy and out of rhythm.

I tend to be like this with my writing, singing, baking, painting and photography, and I’d like to be more intrinsically motivated to study, and even to work. My intrinsic motivation to do these two things is, of course, threatened by the external reward systems inherent in them (grades and accolades for studies, money and recognition for work). If only I could care less about external rewards!


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