Never let schooling interfere with your education.

Today, I was driving my teenage son home from his summer internship and he made a startling observation. He said that he believes that school comes in the way of his education. This reminds me of the quote attributed to Mark Twain but actually coined by 19th century essayist Grant Allen, "Never let schooling interfere with your education." What makes this so fascinating coming from my son is that he gets school, receiving straight As in virtually all of his subjects and achieving high standardized test scores. --A father can shep a little nachas, can't he?-- And yet, my son does not believe schooling helps his learning. He thinks, most of the time, it hinders it.

I asked my son to elaborate and he said that he feels like he has learned more so far in two weeks working with a mentor in computer coding than he has in many high school courses he took for an entire year. This despite the fact that his internship this year is pretty "laid back" with his mentor giving him projects to work on at home and my son checking in periodically and meeting up once a week. My son actually spends much of his day playing video games- he has now hooked up our bedroom flat screen TV to his Wii- and only works when he wants to. He explained that despite this he accomplishes so much because he has a single-minded focus on the coding. He could be intensely coding for 5 hours straight and only then take his gaming break. But this laid back atmosphere is not the main reason for his deep learning. He explained that last summer when he took a very different type of internship in genetic coding which required him to commute daily to a local university and attend lecture and do lab work from 9-4 daily with few breaks, he had a similar feeling of accomplishment. What really helped his learning process was the time and intensity of these two experiences.

He contrasted this with school where one attends classes at forty minute intervals and has to study 6-11 subjects a day, remember he attends a Yeshiva high school with a dual curriculum. By the time he gets to class, sits down, and starts to focus, often twenty minutes of the period has gone by. Then he finally starts to get it and become engaged with the material and.... the bell rings... time for the next subject.

He said that the most important thing he has learned in high school is time management because he has to pick and choose which subjects to devote all of his energy to and which subjects to do a bit less intensely. How could he do otherwise when he has to divide his attention into so many different areas? I asked him how school could be different and my son suggested that perhaps school should focus solely on one subject for an entire month at a time. One could learn an entire year's worth of material in this time with the proper focus and intensity and then move on to the next subject.

Before I started to question the audacity of this proposal, I began to think back to my own learning experiences. I remember in my Yeshiva days we would have a set time or seder in learning Talmud with a chavruta, a learning partner, for 2-3 hours at a time followed by a long shiur, a break, and then afternoon seder for another long 2-3 hour stretch. Often it could take me the entire first hour to get focused and then I would be "in the zone" learning intently for the rest of the stretch. My chavruta used to describe my learning process. He said that it took me a little time to get warmed up but once I was in the proper focus, I could really fight in learning. ( A reference to the Talmudic concept of Milchamta Shel Torah, that Torah study should not be a passive, silent exercise but an active dispute, a war of Torah, with one's learning partner.)

I could give examples from my secular subjects as well. One of my most memorable learning experiences in college was actually a biology course that I chose to take in summer school. I chose summer school primarily because I dreaded the late night labs during the regular semester course. What I did not realize was how intensive and immersive this summer school experience would be. For six weeks I studied biology from 9-4 every single day, 5 days a week. The morning was spent entirely on the lectures while the afternoons were devoted to the labs. I remember so much from that course and really believe, as my son described, that it was the single-minded focus on biology that was the catalyst to this learning. I would not have learned and certainly not have retained nearly as much had I taken biology as a regular college course together with some 3-4 other courses and a late night lab during the semester.

My recent ISTE experience was one more example of the value of such experiences. For three days straight my sole focus was on growing, sharing, and networking in educational technology. I attended lectures, panel discussions, playgrounds, and poster sessions. I spent time schmoozing with vendors in the exhibition hall, getting to meet the people behind the apps that are so important to my teaching and learning. I tweeted, blogged, and created a shared Google spreadsheet where many participants have posted their notes. At night, I networked and reflected on the events of the day with other like-minded Jewish educators in dinners coordinated by The DigitalJLearning Network. I doubt that I could have any similar experience by attending workshops periodically. It needed to involve going away for three days straight with a single-minded focus in order to achieve such a learning experience.

This blog itself is another example of the need for focus and attention in order to produce. Blog posts do not come easily for me. I can often be thinking about an idea to blog about for hours, days, weeks, or sometimes even months before I begin the writing process. The writing itself usually takes me a number of hours. I need to focus my mind and think deeply in order to reflect in this online space. Deep thinking takes time.

But yet our schools rarely give our students the time to achieve such a sense of learning and accomplishment. This point was most poignantly made at ISTE by Gary Stager when describing the need for giving kids the time to make meaningful things in his presentation at ISTE on Making, tinkering, & engineering in classroom. He quipped, when do kids get to do something longer than a course of an antibiotic so they can become good in something? He then quoted the book A Schoolmaster of the Great City by Angelo Patri, an educational reformer from the early twentieth century:
I do not remember the school ever staying with a beautiful idea long enough to have it become part of the children's lives.
I don't have any real solution in the traditional high school setting, with so many required subjects and constraints of time and staffing, to this problem. One solution is to carve out small pockets of this longer learning embedded in the high school schedule. For example, my school has been successful in this area with our week-long school-wide Shiriyah festival and our engineering classes. It is my hope that we can work further in schools throughout the world to achieve this vision of longer, deeper learning for all of our students so that schooling will become a key component of their education.