Reflections on Learning (Review: The Social Animal by David Brooks)

A while back, I responded to David Brooks’ New York Times op ed piece on social education.  Having found that piece so fascinating, I bought his newest book,  The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement.  As Brooks explains in his introduction, The Social Animal is written in the style of Rousseau’s book, Emile.  Rousseau created characters and used their dialogue to advance his points, and Brooks has created a small cast of characters to explain current scientific thinking on many of the characteristics that make us human, such as societal norms, attachment, and learning.  I’m only a third of the way through, so I can’t fully review the book, but that chapter on learning resonated, so I thought I’d share my thoughts a bit early.

In this chapter, Brooks’ fictional male, Harold, is in high school.  His English teacher, Ms. Taylor, exposes him to Edith Hamilton’s The Greek Way, which ignites Harold’s interest in ancient Greece.  He begins to meet with Ms. Taylor periodically, and finds added enjoyment reading more about the Greeks.  Captivated by the subject and enjoying the one-on-one instruction of his teacher, Harold chooses more books on the ancient Greeks.  Together, they discuss his findings, and she encourages him eventually to re-read the books with which he began his studies.  Not surprisingly, he finds he appreciates them on a deeper level, commiserate with his increased knowledge in the time period.  Next, she has him journal about the ancient Greeks, and finally, guides him through a thesis of his own choosing in which he relates his own high school experiences with an element of ancient Greek life.

Sounds like homeschooling to me.

At least, it sounds like I’d like homeschooling to be.

According to David Brooks, Ms Taylor got it all right when it comes to encouraging learning.  She planted a seed at a ripe moment.  She encouraged her student to explore more of his choosing on the same topic, which Brooks points out is the way adults learn.  Via journaling and discussion, she coaxes Harold to manipulate the information and look for connections beyond where the texts take him directly.  Finally, she asks him to order his thoughts and findings via the thesis.  By the end of that process, he’s learned how to learn. He’s experienced the joy and satisfaction one can find when we follow a passion and truly make it our own, learning it for good.  I’d have liked to have had a Ms Taylor in high school.  I’d like to be one to my kids.

Brooks’ chapter on learning reminded me of why I’m homeschooling my kids.  Okay, not the why that has to do with trying to find a good school match for twice-exceptional kids.  The part that came before that, when my four-year old immersed himself into a study on space for the better part of a year.  The part that came after that,  when my younger devoured everything he could about ancient Rome, making connection after connection to that ancient culture and our present day life and politics.  Those reasons for homeschooling.

So why don’t I homeschool in a way that respects and encourages that kind of learning?  Perhaps my enthusiasm for child-led learning with follow-thru waned when Pokemon and Star Wars took center stage.  Perhaps it was when my older shunned everything that just might be hard (although mastered quite a bit of meteorology on his own, via NOAA, videos, and books).  Perhaps it was when I worried that my dysgraphic 10-year-old needed to get his thoughts out of his head and onto paper in a way that didn’t involve my taking dictation or using voice recognition that caught only half of his pre-adolescent, high-pitched voice.  Perhaps it was a desire for my kids to have a balanced education that would give them a set of tools that would open doors and all that stuff.

My kids are terrific learners when they are in charge.  When my older son developed a passion for all things weather, he read books he’d have never attempted had I suggested them.  He took himself to websites that stretched his knowledge and wondered about aspects of science of which I have absolutely no knowledge.  Over the years, he can to have preferences to weather modeling systems about which I have absolutely no understanding.  I’m glad to nod and listen, asking questions which he answers patiently.  When my younger son happened upon the crusades in our world history studies, he latched on tightly.  Too young to effectively do his own searching, he relied on me to find videos and books on the subject, expanding his interest into the geography of Europe and the Middle East and the history of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  He lived the crusades, giving lengthy lectures on what he’d have changed had he run the show.  It’s worth a listen, at least the first time, but make yourself comfortable before asking him to fill you in.

David Brooks is right.  Not only does science show us that people learn best when they immerse themselves in the subject matter, revisit older material as they progress in their studies, and create something new with the material, my own experience backs that up.  So why am I homeschooling the way that I am?  Why do I insist on each year containing math, vocabulary, writing, reading, history, and science?  Why not just pull a Ms Taylor, guiding them with a light touch as they find their way through the subjects of their choosing?

Perhaps I don’t trust their curiosity to expose them to all they really need to master to have choices once they reach adulthood.  Perhaps I know my own aversion to venturing into what doesn’t fascinate me or that seems too hard — perfectionism can curb willingness to try the difficult stuff, and both children have a strong streak of perfectionism that didn’t fall far from the tree.   Perhaps I’m just don’t want them to ask why I didn’t “make” them learn to spell, to understand fiction, to master essay writing, and so on.

While the best learning may be done in the fashion Brooks outlines in his Harold/Ms Taylor story, I’m doubtful that most kids will immerse themselves in interests with enough perseverance and depth to acquire the habits and skills it takes to succeed in higher education or even in jobs requiring less structured learning.  There are times we have to do what we don’t want to do, persevere in what doesn’t interest us, and learn things that are hard to learn.  I’m not sure I’d have taken to writing if it hadn’t been for a rather frightening, demanding, brilliant instructor in 9th grade who forced the issue day after day.  Was it fun?  No.  Was it hard?  Very much so.  Did it take me to a new place in my ability to express myself in writing?  Absolutely.  Perhaps I’d have found those skills later on, on my own, but perhaps not.  Perhaps my kids would have mastered fractions and long division without me standing over them, guiding them through with a less-than-serene countenance when they balked.  Perhaps not.

So I’m thankful for David Brooks reminder that the best learning is initiated by the learner and assisted by one-on-one instruction.  I don’t think Brooks would advise radical unschooling to the masses, but I appreciate his tale of Harold and Ms Taylor.  I’ll be shaping the next school year to be a bit more learner friendly, along with those not always exciting and easy basics they need to make that self-directed learning easier.


4 thoughts on “Reflections on Learning (Review: The Social Animal by David Brooks)

  1. Very thought provoking post…With 2 PG homeschool DDs (almost 6 and 7) I keep asking myself these same questions. I love the sound of self-directed learning but can’t imagine my 2DDs “directing” their grammar, spelling, maths factual/techniques development etc. though they would happily read, art/craft, try scientific ideas endlessly. I try to cajole and entice rather than demand but sometimes it comes down to “do A and then you can do B”. As an adult I use this same technique to get through the dull to get to the fascinating. I’ll look out for the book!
    Tracey… our gifted homeschool blog

  2. Great post about a topic I have been thinking about lately. As our school year is coming to the end, I find myself allowing my boys to be more free with their schooling days. I don’t follow a rigid schedule usually, but we do have a fairly standard weekly routine. Right now it just feels like they are learning so much more when they have more freedom. I know I couldn’t pull this off all year…I think the novelty would wear off and soon we’d be accomplishing little to nothing. But for now I’m enjoying the semi-unschooling environment in my home. Hopefully I’ll be able to try and incorporate the best of both while planning for next year.

    • We’re definitely winding down around here as well. I really want to incorporate more freedom in the schedule (that’s an oxymoron, it seems), but the less I assign to my older child, the less he does. Minecraft and Star Wars Miniatures start to rule the day, and I just can’t see those as the basis of his studies at 13. I’m still searching for balance myself. Thanks for your comment.

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