Passion: Hidden Trump Card?

Lest you be misled, this is a story of intellectual passion – but please don’t run away, just yet.

My friends can tell you that I am passionate about many things – politics, mathematics, economics, computers, and education being very high on the list. Few would be surprised to discover that I have been reading several hours per day, for many years. Lately, I asked myself, where did my particular passions originate? Were they part of the official K-12 curriculum? Can I point to a teacher who lit the fires? There were teachers who played important roles in my life and education, but they were not my primary source of inspiration; your experience may differ.

Without passion, little learning is possible. Little is retained. Think back to your early years – do you honestly remember all the assigned readings? All the many aspects of mathematics? All the lessons of history, and so forth and so on? Thousands and thousands of hours of instruction – how much have you retained? Perhaps you are fortunate enough to have near-perfect memory. Can we then ask the question more broadly? How much does the “average” student retain? How about those who rank still lower? Polls have asked Americans about well-known factual questions which are indisputable and in every curriculum in America – such as “How many Senators does your State have?” and “Can you name five rights which are listed in the First Amendment?” and so forth – and the retention rate, even for recent graduates, is very low.

So, let us ask, which information did stick? And why? In my case, the answer is: I remember those things about which I was passionate.

And where did my passion originate? I learned to read early, asking my folks “what does that sign say?” and otherwise piecing together my reading skills. I was a fluent reader before I entered first grade. Just about every child in four generations of my family has learned to read early, and is an avid reader. This is not because we were enthralled with our reading instructors – I was given the very lame “See Dick Run” books, and had to wait 40 minutes to read my assigned two lines. We learned to read because we lived with people who loved to read, and who read often. It was an important skill in their lives, and they obviously enjoyed it, so we wanted to learn. And so we did; I read daily for fun, as do most of my relatives, and have learned enormous amounts of information thereby – outside the normal educational channels.

Second only to my “reading” classes and penmanship classes, the most hated classes were history classes. I do not believe I ever met an interesting history teacher or text while in school. I agree 100% with Mark Twain’s saying that “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

But it happens that, on the shelves of my library at home, there were about 40 volumes of Collected Presidential Papers – and I dipped into these from time to time. They fascinated me, as did the early-1900s Encyclopedia Britannica, the more recent Funk and Wagnall’s, the dictionaries, including a huge Webster’s Etymological Dictionary, which I placed on a stand in the living room, for frequent consultation; the varied novels, some older than my parents – even a copy of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. There were high school and college texts of all sorts, covering philosophy, logic, propaganda, history, biology, mechanics, physics, math, and other things. There were a few “children’s” books – perhaps one out of ten. Most of these tomes were far “beyond my level,” age-wise. Before my first scraggly chin hairs sprouted, I was deep into these books. Some of them sparked an interest; some did not. The same for the newspapers and magazines to which my parents subscribed.

This passion for reading led to passions for history, economics, politics, and mathematics. I discovered computers by accident – long before I bought my own TRS-80 Model I, and before personal computers had even been invented – and taught myself to write a program to play checkers. I was too naive to know that this task was too difficult for a 16 year old. Along the way, I taught myself about binary arithmetic, modulo arithmetic, Boolean algebra, circuit design, and many other things which were no part of my curriculum, and for which I obtained no assistance from adult or fellow students. I did not even have the internet – only what I could scrounge from the libraries of my parents and others.

My personal experience with self-teaching makes it easy for me to believe accounts from Sudbury Valley of students who, given a college Chemistry text, disappear for five months of independent reading and return only to say “I have a problem on page 252; can you give me a little help?” – and who devour learning as a hungry man devours meals.

Today, many children play Minecraft, which baffles many adults. I confess that I have not yet dipped my toes into those waters, but educational researchers write about the unexpected – to them – benefits of such immersion. Students reportedly improve their reading skills by several grade levels in order to master high-school and college-level material about Minecraft, even while still in elementary school. Likewise, their math skills increase. All this happens because they are having fun; they are experiencing intellectual passion; their curiosity is aroused, and they want to emulate and perhaps even surpass their peers. No grades, no evaluations, little or no help from “the adults in the room” – and they are learning as if learning actually matters. Well, in this environment, it does – to them.

Similarly, Sugata Mitra has developed what he calls “Minimally Invasive Learning.” Now, what he calls minimally invasive is far less than your notion of a hands-off instructor who hovers in the room and tries to stifle her impulse to micromanage. A typical case is this: Sugata Mitra goes to a remote village in India which has no school; a place so remote that the students do not even speak English. He installs some computers, with English-language keyboards and materials and boxes of CD-ROMs. He then leaves the children and the computer alone – for months.

His camera observes what happens.

A curious child wanders around. Tentatively plays with the keyboard and mouse. These children are initially computer-illiterate.

Somebody discovers that, by clicking on an icon, something happens. Somebody else suggests clicking at other places. Bit by bit, children learn, in small groups, each aiding the process. The children become more and more fluent. Soon, they are doing complex tasks.

I’ll leave you to learn what Sugata Mitra discovered, in his own words.

Just to summarize, however, what he calls Self-Organizing Learning Environments work very, very well, with as next to zero adult intervention as one can get without sending the children – alone – to the Moon.

What’s the secret? Children love to learn – especially when given time and space to explore their own passions. My passions are why I became very good at what I do with computers (and other things.)

Research has been done about the most remarkable geniuses in the world; one of the common factors is that they had considerably more than the usual amount of time to be alone, to think without the constant interruptions of adults; to pursue their passions.

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