Written By The Dad
Random Opening Paragraph
- made, done, happening, or chosen without method or conscious decision.
- Odd, unusual or unexpected
When people say “random” they usually mean the second definition; unexpected or out of the ordinary.
I’m going to write about the first definition, why I believe it’s important, and how it helped me make the decision to homeschool.
People Don’t Really Like Randomness
The hard part about randomness is that humans don’t really understand it. We like order. We make things straight and orderly whenever possible. We like mathematical progressions, the more linear the better. When we can’t do that, we go for simple illustrations. We are better at understanding stories, analogies and pictures.
Non-linearity, ambiguity, vagueness; we don’t like any of these things. They’re hard for our brains to compute.
We interpret uncertainty as risk, and we’re really, really risk-averse.
We’re always trying to control randomness, with varying degrees of success. At best we can minimize downside through systems. We develop systems on top of systems and laws on top of laws in an effort to make the world more understandable, predictable and manageable.
The problem occurs when we start trusting the output from our systems to mean more than its original intent. [see: “An Observation About Large Systems” in my earlier post, “A Dad’s Internal Monologue About Homeschool“]
Most systems are designed to limit downside, but after awhile we start thinking that the system is the basis for all good and acceptable results. We then have a tendency to take this output, usually in some simple, numerical or grade form, and bless it as the almighty truth. As someone once said, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”
At this point we’re no longer critical of the system because we assume that if the system has been around awhile and everyone trusts it it must have been optimized. Further, anyone who doesn’t use the system must be crazy, amiright?
I don’t think this is a good thing.
Predictable ≠ Optimal
I believe optimization is not possible in most things in life. I won’t delve into it now (blog post idea for later, maybe) but I feel strongly about this. We can never guaranetee the best outcome in any situation, because we can’t possibly rationally compute every outcome, much less know and understand all inputs. The best we can do is create systems which give us predictable outcomes and hopefully limit downside, but even then we mess it all up when we confuse “predictable” with “optimal”. When we don’t have as much control as we think we do we are often disappointed by the results. For example: schools.
Say Something Interesting Before Your Readers Close This Post and Go Watch Skateboard Fails On YouTube
Speaking of random, y’know what originally inspired this blog post? Bees.
One of my favorite TED talkers, Rory Sutherland of British marketing agency Ogilvy, often includes an interesting anecdote about bees in his talks. Scientists have known for a long time how foraging bees communicate the location of newly-found pollen to the rest of the hive via the “waggle dance“. The other bees observe this communication somehow and are very good at finding the pollen. What’s been discovered recently is that about 20% of the hive either ignores or doesn’t grasp the dance and flies to completely different locations looking for pollen.*
On one hand it seems like 80% compliance is pretty good, but on the other hand it seems like over time bees would have evolved to eliminate this wasteful randomness and become more efficient.
Sutherland argues that, if not for the inefficiency of that rogue 20%, bees could exhaust their resources very quickly and the hives would die out. The randomness in the bees system brings a continuous stream of new information – and therefore new pollen – to the hive. The unpredictable nature of that subset of the bees actually brings a better result than what might otherwise be seem inefficient.
Kids Are The Same Way
We recently met a mother of a boy about my daughter’s age. We asked if her son was going to start school in the fall. Her answer was, “I don’t know. He doesn’t seem ready to learn yet. He just likes to play.”
That answer didn’t sit well with me at all. Kids learn by playing. That’s not breaking new ground is it?
But, it’s not just that. I feel like there is a wide assumption that learning is necessarily a linear, organized, serious thing. It can be those things, depending on the personalities of the teachers and kids, but I don’t believe it has to be.
I think kids need to have the freedom to let their minds be inefficient and random, and I think they can learn best that way.
In younger kids this will often take the form of imaginative play. To think kids need to stop playing so they can sit still and learn feels downright counter-intuitive to me. It’s akin to expecting all of the bees to go to the same place for pollen: it sounds great on the surface because the initial result will be excellent, but the upside is extremely limited and may eventually even defeat the purpose.
Kids don’t need to be taught how to learn; they’re learning machines. They do need to be taught how to conform and be cooperate, but that’s not necessarily the same thing. In traditional schools kids are taught to stand in lines, write legibly, fill in the blanks, darken the correct circle, etc. I won’t argue that these skills are completely unnecessary, but I feel like they’re often conflated with learning itself.
My personal worry is that by putting kids through a school system that is predicated on predictable, measurable outcomes has been completely substituted for teaching these kids how to use their talents. In doing so there’s danger of snuffing out the kids’ natural desire to learn by regimenting it unnaturally. Again, this gives predictable results but it’s subjective whether those results are optimal.
I could understand an argument that learning all of this conformity facilitates further learning, but I don’t completely buy it. After all, as our schools get more standardized and regimented our students aren’t getting more literate. They’re getting good at tests, but is that the point of learning? Which is more important to today’s job market (and isn’t that the goal?), specific refined skills or unfettered talent?
I’ll let you, the reader, decide for yourself, because I’m not sure there’s a correct answer.
Schooled by Randomness**
For me, the “correct” answer is to scale back the rigidity and let natural randomness happen. I want to let the kids be random as long as possible; let them follow their interests; fit their learning to their world, not the other way around. Let them be whichever version of the aforementioned bees they need to be so as to learn as much as they can.
Kids are decidedly non-risk-averse, so I want let them take risks. Rather than minimize the chances of them failing, I want to let them fail in controlled ways. I don’t want to eliminate failure and disappointment, I want them to learn how to use these as tools to learn and grow even more.
All of this is part of my journey into being a homeschool dad. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I never intended to homeschool my kids prior to having them. Yet as I’ve watched them grow and develop I’ve taken more interest in how they learn and grow and its caused me to think very carefully about the “how” part. I’m amazed at the way they continually try things they can’t physically do, stumbling across solutions to problems and opportunities for growth along the way. I’m in awe of the amount they learn in ways that seem incredibly inefficient to an adult. To my untrained eye it’s random, but it always works.
I’m learning to re-frame the idea of randomness from “unknowable risk” to “limitless possibility”. Those two terms mean almost the same thing, but as with everything, it’s all a matter of perspective. I choose to accept some risk in the interest of upside. I feel like the best way to allow my kids to do all of this is to homeschool/unschool.
Some Random Dad
To facilitate homeschool in this way, I have to get over a tendency I learned in school to color inside the lines as carefully as possible, so to speak.
As a dad and as an engineer, this is going to be a challenge for me.
As a dad, this will take a lot of patience which is not one of my stronger traits. I’m going to have to be okay with my kids following their little kid instincts, ask a million questions, and sometimes take the least-direct path to an answer. They’re going to deep dive topics I don’t care about because they’re interested, and I’m going to facilitate, because that just might be the best way for them to learn what they need to learn. As such, disappointment and failure are going to be tools for them. I want this to be so, for them, despite knowing that watching my kids fail might be difficult.
As an engineer I’m going to have to learn to be okay with not measuring all progress numerically. At some point there may have to be testing or grading, but I’m going to learn how not to use test grades as a crutch to assess progress. I feel very strongly that I need to avoid teaching my kids there’s an end point. There’s no bell after an hour, there’s no final, conclusive test, and you don’t get to sell back your text book afterwards and forget everything. That’s not how real life works so they don’t need to learn that.
I’m going to have to be okay with randomness again, just like I was before I learned not to be. For my kids’ sake, I’m up to the challenge. We’ll be learning together.
*For the full video of Sutherland’s speech entitled “Clocks and Clouds” (a reference to a quote by Karl Popper) click here; “waggle dance” explanation starts at 14:30. Viewer discretion advised: adult language throughout. Excellent talk though, if you can ignore the language.
**Blatant Ripoff of the title of Nassim Taleb’s 2001 book, Fooled By Randomness. I have no connection with him but am a fan of his books and highly recommend you go buy one and read it.