October 13, 2008

An Unschooler at College: #2

Alternate Title: Suffering from Interest-Led Learningitis

Here's an excerpt from a recent chat I had with my son who is just finishing his second week at the University of Chicago.

me: After your second week of college, what observations can you make?

Peter: I don't know... I am somewhat frustrated with my classes, but I think that's because of the core (required general classes). Most people are not excited about (or good at) learning things that aren't "their area". Someone was helping another student in my math class, and the way she was proving this theorem involved using a theorem derived from the one she was trying to prove. It was sad. She was just trying to get an answer and didn't think about it hard enough to realize she was doing something useless.

me: What are you saying?

Peter: Other people aren't particularly good at or excited about the things we're learning in the classes I'm in, as far as I can tell. I mean, there are definitely more intelligent, interesting people than average here, but...one friend is a genius, so I just have to get him to study things I'm interested in, and we can have good conversations.

me: ha! what's his major?

Peter: Math. All the cool people here are math majors. It's pretty funny.

me: hmmm...maybe you could expand their horizons, I'm sure they need it. :)

A few days ago Peter said he was giving up the pretense that he didn't know more than the textbook in his sociology class. I guess he was trying not to look like a know-it-all. But he'd been listening to freshman level classes over the Internet for the past year, and just knew more than the textbook covered. Also, when his teacher gave a reading assignment, he found it so interesting, he went ahead and finished the book.

Peter is exhibiting classic Interest-Led Learningitis. He is accustomed to diving deeply into a subject for the sheer joy of it. He's not a clock-watcher or a do-the-minimumer. For people like him, information is not a list of facts to be processed and checked off. Instead, information is a clue that unlocks mysteries. He sees the world from inside a curiosity bubble, like a child learning to walk and talk: everything is fascinating and every new skill leads to more joy.

The only cure for Interest-led Learningitis is coercion to memorize, recite, or produce things that hold no interest to the learner or have no perceived value. You can also be cured by hanging around people who've been cured. Let's hope that never happens to Peter.

An Unschooler at College series of posts


Traci said...

Truly amazing! I never read a college text for anything other than to complete assignments! I pray I can instill this love of learning in my kids!

Heather said...

Oh yes. You know I did this in the classes I was interested in (like children's lit where I knew way more even than the teacher--who loved me and kept trying to get me to teach the class and to become a librarian. ) And my children's psych class, lit class, philosophy--where I read the whole text just for fun, even though we didn't as a class. I thought I was weird. :) And maybe I was compared to the other students.

Anonymous said...

Getting away from textbooks is always good, too. They are geared to the covering the minimum type of student though good ones should have lists of suggested reading.

You might let him know that if he is really interested in a topic he can tell the prof that and ask if they could suggest some things he could read. They should have office hours. And I've never met a prof who didn't appreciate students who really want to learn. We come across them so rarely.

He might also go explore the academic journals and see what is being done these days. The American Sociological Review is a good general one. Or Sociology (the journal of the British Sociological Association). The American Journal of Sociology is well-regarded but publishes a lot of quantitative work which can be a bit less interesting to read.

Anonymous said...

I was a classic learner from the get-go. Had two teachers for parents who really believed in the system, and so I learned how to work the system. I read the text given to me, learned enough for the test, took the test (usually did fairly well on test) then proceeded to let information ooze out of my brain almost immediately. I don't remember much of anything I learned. I graduated magna cum laude with a 3.9 average, but couldn't tell you one thing from one textbook. I worked the system, yes, but it was MY loss, because I didn't really find out what I "wanted to be" until much, much later. Fascinating to see your son's journey PAST the system! Kudos as usual...

Jena said...

I like hearing your stories and ideas. Thank you! I was like Topsytechie, an expert at working the system, hating it and being successful at the same time. My goal was freedom--let me out as soon as possible so I can do what I want!

JoVe, my sociology professor friend, thanks for the suggestions. He did spend some time with a professor during office hours last week. I told him he should do more of that.

Mindy said...

How cool! I am so enjoying your posts on Peter's college experiences. I am enjoying them so much that I wish I was unschooled as a kid!

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