Tag Archives: learning

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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We value only what we can measure

In all the literature I have read, I know of few statements more profound than the following quote from St Exupery’s Little Prince:

The wise fox

My secret is this. It is very simple. It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye

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The transformation of learning into education

The transformation of learning into education paralyses man’s poetic ability, his power to endow the world with his personal meaning. Man will wither away just as much if he is deprived of nature, of his own work, or of his deep need to learn what he wants and not what others have planned that he should learn. (“Tools for conviviality”, Ivan Illich)

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DIY is a broad segment of television programming that purports to demonstrate how to do something, be it renovate a house, decorate a cake, tend a perfect garden, build a TV cabinet or cook a scrumptious meal. These shows sell themselves as educational. Their intent is apparently to freely share some expert advice with its audience.

I contend that most of these shows are designed to entertain, not teach. In fact, I would argue that they have the opposite effect than what they pretend to have: they “uneducate” their audience. How so? Think about it.

The educational value of something can be estimated by looking at the ratio of exposure to application. For example, if I spend 1 hour studying a cooking technique from a book, then 15 hours practicing and applying that technique during the coming months, the ratio is 1/15. It is a bit like a Return On Investment (ROI). Likewise, if I spend 4 years in University studying for a degree and the next 10 years working in a career that makes use of the knowledge gained, the ratio is 4/10. In addition, it provides me with an income during these 10 years, and much experience and skills that will be an advantage to me for the rest of my life.

In contrast, most watchers of DIY shows spend much more time “learning” than putting that knowledge into practice. In fact, research on television viewing during the past 30+ years shows that viewers retain very little practical knowledge of what they watch. As the shows are designed to be entertaining rather than educational (to maintain high ratings and secure audience fidelity), viewers justify watching episode after episode with the comforting thought that they are accumulating knowledge that will one day be of immense help to them.

In fact, what they are really accumulating is familiarity with the show, and especially with its host, who becomes like a close friend, always happy to freely share his/her vast treasure trove of tips and advice–and to do so in a very entertaining way, because who can bear to watch a boring host?

One sad consequence is that watchers start to believe that mere exposure to the show is turning them into experts in their own right, before they ever put hand to shovel or knife or saw. And when they finally start attempting to apply their pseudo-expertise, they are bitterly disappointed by their mediocre results, or put off by the gruesome reality of the sweat, blood and tears conveniently concealed from the televised images.

Since everything looks so easy and fast on television, watchers are hit with painful force by the difficulty of real work, and they retreat back to the familiarity and ease of their TV DIY show.

Let’s face it: a truly educational show would demonstrate general techniques and principles, and would lead its viewers to spend less and less time watching, and more and more time doing. Since that is precisely the opposite of what all commercial TV shows want to achieve, we can safely dismiss all commercial educational television as distracting from real learning.

The best learning occurs in the physical presence of a master or mentor who demonstrates skills and provides instant feedback on the learner’s performance. It requires humility, patience, effort and courage, none of which are required for, nor fostered by, DIY shows.

So make a change today: stop watching DIY shows and


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Posted by on June 15, 2013 in Musings


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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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