What people call learning

Published by Lori Pickert on January 31, 2011 at 09:39 PM

Bill Moyers: Do you think it’s possible that this contagion can be spread to ordinary folks out there — the passion for learning that you have? Can we have a revolution in learning?

Isaac Asimov: Yes. I think not only we can but I think we’re going to have to. As computers take over more and more of the work that humans shouldn’t be doing in the first place because it doesn’t utilize their brains — it stultifies and bores them to death — there’s going to be nothing left for human beings to do but the more creative type of endeavors. And the only way we can indulge in the more creative type of endeavors is to have brains that aim at that from the start. You can’t take a human being and put him to work at a job that underuses his brain and keep him working at it for decades and decades and then say, “Well, that job isn’t there. Go do something more creative.” You have beaten the creativity out of him. But if from the start children are educated to appreciate their own creativity, then probably we can, almost all of us, be creative. Just as in the old days, very few people could read and write. Literacy was a very novel sort of thing, and you thought that most people just didn’t have it in them. But when you indulged in mass education, it turned out that most people could be taught to read and write.

In the same way, if instead of having mass education as we now have, must have, we have computer outlets in every home hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference material on something you’re interested in — from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else — then you ask and you can find out and you can follow up and you can do it in your own home, at your own speed, in your own direction, in your own time, then everyone will enjoy learning. Nowadays, what people call learning is forced on you and everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class. Everyone is different. For some, it goes too fast; for some, too slow; for some, in the wrong direction. Give them a chance in addition to school — I don’t say we should abolish school, but in addition to school — to follow up their own bent from the start. 

— Isaac Asimov, from a conversation with Bill Moyers in 1988, Conversations with Isaac Asimov

hat tip: Maria


Comment by Susan on February 1, 2011 at 02:18 AM

Wow...1988. We need a revolution. My daughter, who was born in '87, texted me the other day and said she was reading Neil Postman's 'Teaching as a Subversive Activity' and she sounded a bit shocked. I had to look that up because the title sounded so...yikes. It was published in '71. I guess I'll have to read it now that it's in my view. Where are we now?
I'd love to see the endless library/resources for all kids so they could follow all their endless curiosity.
I hope we're getting there.

Comment by akari on February 1, 2011 at 04:46 AM

Thank you Lori for this inspiring excerpt! I have shared on my newest FB page. Things are seeing a shift where I sit, and I now have a studio to call my own. I am now able to give a bit more to my kids when I am off work. It feels to me a matter of finding ways of staying open so that I can let my boys feed and love me just the same or even more...

Yes, the internet and utube and all are changing the learning scape. I thought similarly about birth too. Felt the most safest at home to bring lives into this world knowing also that I only live 5 min from a university hospital with all the know how of cutting and drugging to save lives. It makes sense to me that perhaps all normal procedures of learning and birth happen most efficiently and less distractedly at home.

Comment by Luisa on February 1, 2011 at 04:49 AM

Good one. It's so sad but true about that last part how learned is forced nowadays like a factory assembly line. It just doesn't work and sucks the life out of kids. Love the points in bold.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 1, 2011 at 02:14 PM

i will respond individually later, but just wanted to add —

i like the part when asimov says that working at a job that underuses one's brain for decades kills a person's creativity. he doesn't say it explicitly but he seems to imply that if a child gets 13 years of education that does *not* allow them to create from the start, their ability to create will be stunted. just like that worker, we can't suddenly demand creativity from someone who has never been allowed to develop it.

Comment by Deirdre on February 1, 2011 at 03:00 PM

Love! Printing, posting and sharing.

Someone posted to your last post about how school's used to offer a more mechanical/hands-on program for students who weren't going to pursue college, and that we should bring those back. But most of those old jobs don't still exist. One computer/machine now does the work of 100 factory workers.

This isn't bad news. Those same creative students who didn't want to sit at a desk but wanted to use their hands can find work, but it will be new; they need to be independent learners so as to be able to invent their own work and careers.

Despite the crisis in schools, I have hope because much of what Asimov predicted is happening. Yes, it's taken 20+ yrs to get to this baby stage but I see it everywhere lately (Seth Godin, etsy, & even in our little town)---this realization that everyone is an artist.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 1, 2011 at 04:10 PM

susan, that endless library with a computer terminal is our internet, right? :) except asimov imagines it will replace mass education as we knew it .. not yet, not yet.

where *are* we now? we just don't have a society mindset that matches asimov .. or sir ken robinson. arne duncan is talking about more time in school and more rote learning so we can raise our country's test scores. we're not there yet.

akari, congratulations about your new studio!

funny, you and i feel safest at home, but so many others feel that taking control of education (like childbirth) is too risky. they feel safest .. in a crowd? with a professional making the decisions? not sure. it is interesting, though. we've gone from a country (here in the u.s. anyway) where within 100 years, people went from taking care of many things themselves to farming them out to professionals. a real sea change. and now not only have we lost the skills, but we seem to have lost the confidence that skills impart.

luisa, yes, and i don't think forced learning leaves a long-lasting impression. it just falls away. our brains turn to teflon when they aren't authentically engaged.

deirdre, true true re: factory jobs but there are lots of other jobs that don't require a college education .. *if* you get a really good high-school education. (which we evidently aren't providing)

there are so many jobs that *used* to only require a high-school graduation but now require a bachelor's degree .. credential creep. it's a economic system, keeping people out of the work force artificially, forcing them to acquire debt.

funny that we've been pushing to get all kids into college rather than pushing for high school to do and be more. of course, the foundation is shaky .. that's what we've been talking about. still, the answer can't be more and more of the same (arne duncan's favorite). high school isn't cutting it; elementary school isn't cutting it. and now college isn't cutting it. we need to start over. (i know that's unlikely. :)

yes yes re: independent learners .. again, we aren't cutting it! this is something that can be learned in school; schools can foster this kind of learning. but they don't.

i like what you say about inventing their own work and careers .. i don't think we are preparing our students to do that. a truly resilient learner, someone who is confident they can teach themselves what they need to know (and seek out a mentor when necessary) .. that is someone who can adapt to circumstances. are we creating those kind of people in our schools?

Comment by jane on February 2, 2011 at 12:10 PM

I can't believe this was said in 1988. Not sure if we have come closer to any of this in 2011. So sad.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 2, 2011 at 03:03 PM

we may be no closer to it at a societal level (as an ordinary way of living and learning), but certainly the opportunities are there and some of us are embracing them this way.

i get so many emails from people saying they are attacked by family and friends for hs'ing because they are abandoning the public schools -- instead, their family and friends say, they should stay in the system and fight for change.

a sweet and naive suggestion...

my suggestion now is to say, we're fighting from outside the system. because maybe if the movement gets large enough -- not just hs'ers, but private and charter schools -- then parents will rise up and demand that their children get the same opportunities.

i really read asimov's words as a nice description of project-based homeschooling, with the internet serving as a 24/7 library. it *is* sad that he said this in '88 and we're still doing things the same way (or worse) in 2011 .. but on the other hand talk is talk and some of us are walking the talk. ;)

Comment by jane on February 2, 2011 at 03:56 PM


I do believe homeschoolers, private, charter, and some public schools are educating the way asimov's suggests. I have taught both in public and private schools and was a project-based teacher in a world full of test driven curriculum. I taught the way I believed and fought hard to change parents' minds. In some areas we were successful and some areas not so much. Now, being home, I continue to fight for authentic assessment of our children, creating life-long learners and helping parents understand that they need to help their children in this journey.

Recently, I reluctantly, took over our middle school's PTA. I leave the money raising to the moms' that are good at it and I have opened up dialogue between parents, teacher and administration. I've handpicked teachers that are creative and innovative in their teachings and they in turn provided short presentations on curriculum, teaching methods etc. My hopes are, that parents will start questioning why other teachers are not teaching in the same manner. Sadly, the first presentation we held, four parents attended.

I say it's sad, because it is 2011 and not much has changed in the public schools since I graduated from college in 1984. Yes, we have more computers, that allow the information to be found quickly and easily, but for the majority of the school children are not afforded the opportunity to use the information beyond the basic facts.

I applaud homeschoolers for the dedication and determination that they show for education. I have said multiple times that I wish I had made the choice to homeschool my children. But, for choices, too long to go into here, we didn't. Now, I see that this is my job, to help our public school and parents, understand that there are alternatives in teaching.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 2, 2011 at 09:35 PM

"Sadly, the first presentation we held, four parents attended." i spent years meeting and collaborating with like-minded people trying to puzzle this out. i thought (naively) that all parents would be fired up about getting the best education possible for their children. turns out the majority are satisfied with getting the same education. i wonder if we can only motivate them by invoking jealousy and entitlement -- maybe they will only rise up and make demands if they think their neighbor's child is getting ahead of their own in the great race to success. it's a puzzler.

agree re: not much has changed .. most of the schools i visit look the exact same (and smell the same -- do they still use paste?) as 25 years ago. the feeling is the same, too. sometimes i break out into a sweat, like someone might force me to sit in one of the desks and slam the door on me.

*some* hs'ers and private schools are educating in the way asimov describes .. but definitely not all. but at least those venues offer the *chance* for doing things differently. teachers working individually are swimming against the current, as you know. there are spots of hope in every one of these places .. just not the sea change we need.

i applaud *you* for working to try to make something happen in your school. i know the battle you're fighting. again, i used to sit around with my staff and we would talk about where the change needs to start .. with parent demands? with teachers? with administrators? with society? you've attacked it from two different sides now. what do you think?

Comment by akari on February 4, 2011 at 05:55 PM

The discussions here I find very stimulating that "real learning" is happening for me as a parent as I consider what to do with and for my children now and for later. The jealousy thing though feels quite real, in that the more I learn about Reggio method and how they talk to kids, allow, show, help kids trust their own intuition (or desire or what ever) to follow their own thought process, the more I want to do that for my own interest. I see every day how I am no saint who can give and give something I do not have or give something I have never experienced myself.

So I will admit that the first experiment I am doing on myself, in the way I would talk to myself, allow, show and help myself trust my own intuition. I am finding that the very process of creating safe spaces to explore is the kind of skill set I want to encourage my children to cultivate in themselves. That way when they are without me they can then can recognize and recreate safe zones for themselves to gown within.

Even with my home birthing, diaper freeing, menstrual cup and all that "granola" approach I have taken in my life, there is a conceptual leap I feel. That there is a hurdle in my brain that I am currently testing, still holding tight onto the hope to find a group community that would cradle and foster my children the way I would want happen. There are two such schools on the test this month in my area -one a Japanese expat school- and the other a Japanese bilingual public school.

If I ever moved back to Japan, and if i could afford to live in this area, there is a Reggio school I would have my kids in... Here's their English link just for the record: http://www.bkipreschool.com/index.html

Also, off topic but part of my exploration. I am currently reading a book about our kids environmental future. About generation HOT: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-hertsgaard/meet-generation-hot_b_737163.html'

Ok, so I said off topic but I actually don't really think so because, finding sustainable living, and how we make sure that our kids can grow up to be thinkers and doers are totally relevant for the climate change storm we will all have to face...

I thank you Lori for this safe space you provide...

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 4, 2011 at 09:36 PM

this is beautiful, and i think you are so right to go down this path of trying to give these things to yourself so you can then give them to your children.

in the "sharing power" post, stacey and i were talking in the comments about how inauthentic it is to try to offer something to children that you aren't willing to mirror with the adults. how does that even work? how can you say to children, it's important to collaborate, everyone makes an important contribution, we solve problems together, mistakes aren't the end of the world, and etc. if they see that you don't live those values yourself?

similarly, how do you teach your children habits of mind that you yourself don't have? on the flip side, how much easier it is to teach those habits of mind if you do have them. how much easier it is for a reader to raise children who are readers .. how much easier it is for you to transmit values that you *live* rather than just say.

when you give yourself the same support and space to experiment and learn that you give your children, it enhances what you are trying to give to them a thousand percent. it becomes the world they live in; everything around them is sending the same unified message.

it is one thing to say to your children what you want them to do and to be; it is entirely something else to actually live those values and those beliefs.

thank you for the links and *thank* you for considering this a safe place to explore ideas; that is exactly what i want it to be!

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