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Understanding versus memorizing

Before I sat down to write this column about education, I spoke with Neil Parmenter, an adjunct professor at Southern New Hampshire University, and my mentor. The combination of classroom teaching and online learning are fast making changes in education. Parmenter believes that teaching over the Internet reduces costs and helps people learn quicker. He says that you need a hybrid approach — a combination of both classroom and Internet learning — to achieve the best results.

But it is important that you don’t lose the physical connection in the classroom — the mentoring. Parmenter says that one of the biggest things missing from online learning is mentoring — actually talking to the student. You could always have online office hours, but the net is not the same as waving your arms in front of the student. Another problem with online learning is it doesn’t meet the bureaucratic accreditation. Parmenter says that the paperwork for managing an online course — or any course for that matter — has increased by a factor of 10 over the last decade. Fill out the paper, grade it and teach.

In addition to talking with Parmenter, I did my own research online. An interesting result of this research was a wonderful TED lecture by Ken Robinson. In his lecture, he makes a moving case for nurturing instead of what we do now. He suggests that we are undermining creativity and need to challenge the way we are educating our children and our adults. A homework assignment for the reader is okay.

Have you ever noticed that all of the tests and quizzes on television game shows are memory questions, not understanding questions? I bring this up because here at the barn we educate teenagers and kids up to the age of 60. I try to put in understanding first and memory as a distant second. One specific example comes to mind. A child was having problems in the state of Maine and was tested at the seventh percentile in the sixth grade. When he entered the seventh grade in Maine, his grades went down. So he came to us halfway through the seventh grade. My daughter, an artist, decided to help home school him in my conference room with formal school hours. She focused on understanding. After completion of the seventh grade here, his mother wanted him back home. We did have to prove, however, that he had a valid seventh-grade education. So he took a test and performed at the 93rd percentile across the board with 98 per cent in science and math. He went back to Maine and the old high school and crashed, bored out of his mind. A pity. He just wasn’t engaged.


For older students, I recommend two to four days of summer courses at one of these three institutes: Caltech, Harvard or MIT. I don’t know whether they educate well, but they sure do teach understanding. For some reason, these three schools are the kings of understanding in the world. I am always asked about Stanford. Stanford is a wonderful school, but a long time ago the Dean of Engineering at Stanford said to me, “I know why Stanford is not an MIT.” He gave a deep philosophical answer — “We play football.”

It’s really about the approach. Opening the door to understanding is different than opening the memory door.

We have had approximately 40 children living in our barn environment over the years. All but one of them got to college, and they all did it on scholarships. I don’t know how we managed this — really. The joke is that we treat our kids like dogs. How do dogs teach their puppies to behave? My neighbour once asked me, “How do you get such a well-mannered dog, and so smart?” I decided to watch the teaching process of a dog. The teacher took a new puppy on board to teach it how to behave. The new puppy would come along and pick up flowers, chase cars and ignore humans. The puppy thinks, “This is a good life here. Someone feeds me, keeps me warm and allows me to be innovative.” Then the puppy decides to eat out of the old man’s dish. Wow. In about five seconds he learns everything he needs to know — don’t eat out of the old man’s dish. We try to apply this principle to the kids. Do anything you want, but don’t bother us with the details. The silverback gorilla has roughly the same method of teaching — don’t eat out of my dish.

Don’t pander to the puppy. Allow solutions to emerge from the brain, not from a textbook. As an adult, go to one of the three universities mentioned for two to three days. You’ll never forget it. For kids, amplify education with home tutoring.

Remember, creation is the mother of civilization. Crowds can’t think in large groups and they suppress creativity.

When I think about this, I am reminded of something that Albert Einstein once said, which pretty much sums up my column: “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.”