The sheep are always more excellent

The sheep are always more excellent on the other side of the green.

british_milk_sheep1As it happens last night I was reading William Deresiewicz‘s  Excellent Sheep about the pressure students feel to get good grades at the expense of learning, and how this extends right into the Ivy Leagues – because you don’t get into the Ivy Leagues without having accepted and mastered this technique. He quotes one of his students, “Yes, I am miserable, but were I not miserable, I wouldn’t be at Yale.”

Dear daughter asked me what I was reading so …
I tried to pose a question:  suppose you were assigned to read a book, In scenario A you give the higher priority to finishing the book, even if there are interesting things you would like to explore along the way, you cut short your thinking about them so that you can finish the book. In scenario B you go ahead and explore them even though you might not finish the entire book. Read the rest of this entry »

Is there a curriculum in this house?

Is there a curriculum in this house?

1. Day in the Life

Kanti wakes up and starts telling the story of her dream to her mother, Shanti.  The story involves some balls rolling down some hills or steps or slides – she can’t really tell and in the dream they sort of morphed into one another.  She closes her eyes again for some time.  Then she jumps up to find some balls and starts rolling them down the steps and then creates a slanted surface with some pillows and rolls the balls at various angles.  She folds her sheets, lays them over the pillows and rolls balls down that too.  Over breakfast their conversation goes to bicycles, gauging the slope of a road by riding your bike (more easily than you can by walking), how to gain momentum to continue riding uphill without pedalling, and how long that will last.  She also tells her father, Ganti, what her friend told her the other day when they rode bicycles together.  The conversation reminds her of another friend and she goes to skype with that friend.  On skype they play a guessing game for a while and then log in to Khan Academy together to show each other their programs.

At lunch she has pulusu and rice in a steel plate and when she spins the plate she observes the pulusu liquid spin to the edge of the plate while the rice and vegetable pieces remain in the middle.  She then spins faster and sees the motion of the vegetable pieces and rice as well.  She puts the rice and vegetables in different parts of the plate and observes the motion when she spins the plate.

She reads a book and later enacts some of the scenes of the book using some beads (pretending they are the characters).  Afterwards she makes some things out of clay and pretends that she is running a shop.  She makes some clay money as well.  She keeps accounts, tracks expenses and profits as well.  Some objects cost more because they use a lot of clay, some because they require more skill.  Some are made of clay plus other things like toothpicks or cardboard pieces.

In the bathroom she watches the water dripping from the tap into a mug and overflowing into a bucket and observes the ripples as they fall.  Because the mug is tilted the ripples are not circular but in an oval shape.  She recognizes the focal points.  She observes the periodic nature of the overflow from the mug to the bucket.

“Kanti!” her friends calling at the window shake her from her thoughts. “Coming!” she shouts back in reply. She quickly finishes her bath and gets ready to go out to play.  Outside she and her friends decide what game(s) to play using an elaborate decision making process.  They then play the various games until every one has to go home.

Ganti asks her if she wants to go to the store.  She says, “can we take the long cut?”  “Okay,” he says as they go out.  Rather than walk on the main road, she walks across the open lot behind their neighbourhood, around some drainage pipes that she can climb, and through a cluster of houses that have come up near a construction site.  She plays with some dogs along the way.  On the way back it starts raining and she knows where on the open lot the puddles would start to form and goes there to splash and also to look for earthworms.  She can not find any worms and so plans to come back the next day.

When she gets back home her shoes and clothes are thoroughly muddy and she stops first at the bathroom to change and dry off.  She asks her dad not to scrape the mud from her shoes but to leave them to dry like that so that she can walk with heavy shoes and then chisel the dried mud off with a rock, as she had done once before.

She and her mom start making rolls. She plays with the dough for a long time, which is useful because it needs to be kneaded.  Otherwise it will not rise.  “Why?”  she asks.  Shanti explains that kneading the dough combines different proteins to make gluten which makes the dough stretchy.   They place the dough in a bowl, cover with a damp cloth and leave it to rise.  After dinner they punch down the dough and form it into rolls.  These will now rise again for an hour and then bake for half an hour.  But now they are so tired that no one wants to stay up and bake them after an hour much less eat them when they are done.  They decide to make them the next morning, and to prevent premature rising, they put the entire tray of rolls in the fridge.

Her dad tells her a story of Akbar and Birbal.  She interrupts frequently, leading to a number of tangential conversations, but always coming back to the story, until they fall asleep.

In the course of the day a variety of questions have come up – about fluid flow, physical forces, economics, properties of materials, biochemical reactions, emperors, worms, and so on. These questions will remain and help to sort out other experiences and data that Kanti comes across, and in turn she will have further questions.   To prepare for the next time she and Kanti will talk about gluten, Shanti has looked up some information about how it gets activated in the kneading process and is ready to show its molecular structure using paper clips.  Is this conversation about gluten child-led?  Adult-led?  Led by the desire for bread?  Kanti plans to go back to the ground the next day to search for earthworms.  Had she not gone the previous day with Ganti, she might not have made this plan.  If she lived in a house where getting muddy was frowned upon, it would be less likely to happen.  Or more likely – depending on how risk-averse (or frown-averse) Kanti was.

This path, wondering, pondering, meandering as it may be, comes from within.  Suggestions, expectations, requirements and other stimuli come from the outside world but the way one receives and responds to them comes from within. Though the specific things Kanti says and does cannot be predicted in advance, they are influenced by whatever she and those around her have said and done before.  Underlying it all is an intricate fabric.

2. Is there a curriculum in this house?

I ask this question with an echo.  An echo that, like every echo, echoes another.

This echoes Stanley Fish:  “Is there a text in this class?”

“Is there a text in this class?” is a question posed by a student to a teacher who then reported this question to Stanley Fish, who then shared the story in the opening paragraph of his essay titled, “Is there a Text in this Class?”  It is published in a book of essays, under the title, Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Harvard, 1980).

You can read the article online here or download a copy of it from teacherweb.

“Is there a text in this class?”

Here is how Stanley Fish encountered and in turn posed this question:

On the first day of the new semester a colleague at Johns Hopkins University was approached by a student who, as it turned out, had just taken a course from me.  She put to him what I think you would agree is a perfectly straightforward question:  “Is there a text in this class?”  Responding with a confidence so perfect that he was unaware of it (although in telling the story, he refers to this moment as ” walking into the trap”), my colleague said, “Yes; it’s the Norton Anthology of Literature,” whereupon the trap (set not by the student but by the infinite capacity of language for being appropriated) was sprung:  “No, no,”  she sad, “I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?”

– Stanley Fish, “Is There a Text in This Class?” in Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard, 1980), p. 305.

The question “is it just us?” refers to the idea that the reader is part of the text, and that the meaning of the text comes from the experience of reading, and is not a fixed and finished product of writing.

But is there such a thing as “just us?” Are we not in turn formed by our interactions with everything around us, including the text before us?  Rather than conclude that a text has no meaning, Fish proposes that we find that meaning in the interplay between reader and text.

“Meaning is an event, something that happens, not on the page, where we are accustomed to look for it, but in the interaction between the flow of print (or sound) and the actively mediating consciousness of a reader-hearer.”

– Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. x.

And so it is for curriculum.

Curriculum is determined not by the external sources (where we are accustomed to look for it) but by the interaction between the flow of external sources and the actively mediating consciousness of the living learner.

Curriculum is not just that thing that schools and traditional homeschoolers use. Curriculum is a path of thought inherent to everyone who thinks. Like a river charts a course by flowing, and explorers blaze trails by walking, we pursue ideas by thinking, in communication with the sea of ideas that surrounds us.

Nor is free thinking and self-directed learning only (or necessarily) practiced by those who are not in school or not “following a curriculum.” Even those using a rigidly prescribed curriculum must actively mediate in order to draw meaning from it, within the social context in which it is embedded.

What it would it be not to follow a curriculum?
To follow whim?
What is whim?  Does it come from nothing?  What is nothing?  Is there (ever) nothing?  Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Is there such a thing as “no path?”
Was Kanti walking where there is no path when she rejected the main road in favour of the open lot and through the neighbourhood?  Let us look at the factors that influenced her decision:
  • open lot route was interesting – pipes to climb, puddles to splash,etc
  • road was same old route, hence boring
These are just facts about the two routes.  These alone might not determine her preference each time.  What influenced her decision that particular day?
  • had time to take the “long cut”
  • had taken it before and hence knew about it
  • wanted to feel the mud on her shoes
  • dogs
  • vehicle traffic on the main road
  • position of sun, which way the wind blew
  • other factors we don’t know
Her path was as much influenced by the existence of the main road, which she found unattractive, perhaps because it was too neat, orderly, paved and fixed, as by any particular feature of the open lot and winding alley paths.
Though the path may not be there on the ground, the path is there in the mind, and that directs one’s footsteps on the ground.  Every time we take a step, there is something behind our step, leading us to take this step and not some other step.  And one step leads to another.
Writing in Mud

Question Answers

Question Answers

Walking around the neighbourhood, I heard a boy and girl talking. Both were in 4th standard, one in a government school and one in a private school.

"Everything they are teaching me in school … I have already learned beyond," the boy commented.

My ears perked up. I caught up with them and casually inserted myself in their conversation. "How did you learn it already?" I inquired.

"Reading!" he said.

"Reading what?" I asked.

He named Magic Tree House, and some other titles.

He continued, "All our teachers have changed this term. Our new teacher for social studies is so slow. We have finished only 4 lessons. There are 8 in all."

The girl had a similar story with certain subjects in her school that were progressing too slowly for her liking as well. Both of these kids are bright and studious, with parents very much involved in their education.

"But you can always read ahead if you want," I countered.

"No but the question answers!" they both said at once.

"Question answers?" I asked, puzzled.

The long and short of it is that for each chapter or lesson in a given subject, the teacher assigns some questions. Apparently, they also give out the answers. Even if the kids read ahead to the later lessons, in order to prepare for the exam, they must wait for the "Question Answers."

From where do the teachers get these answers? I asked

"She will look at last year’s papers, from someone who wrote a good answer and tell us all to write that. For example, if the question is, ‘what happened to the boy?’ We will have to write ‘the boy fractured his leg.’" A sing-song tone automatically came into their voice when they recited the answer.

"What if you write something else that happened to the boy?" I asked "Or might have happened?" I wondered – something I could well imagine my daughter writing.

"No we have to write the answer they give us."

So their answers would all be the same? Word for word? Or could they write it in their own words?

"Only for some answers we can write in our own words. The rest of them have to be in the same words." they replied.

Isn’t this what those students at Harvard got sacked for? "[O]n final-exam questions, some students supplied identical answers …" (The Hindu, 2 February 2013)

However what is different here is that writing identical answers on the exam is not considered cheating, it is in fact what the students are instructed to do. The better they can do it, the higher will be their grade and thus the higher the ranking of the school itself. Who benefits from this?

These children in my neighbourhood have opportunities to learn outside of school. The flaws of the school may have frustrated them at times but on the whole they did not seem to mind and even found them amusing. They had learned how to work the system, much as I had when I was a student. Though no teacher ever dictated word-for-word answers, we often had multiple choice questions, which still amounted to identical answers expected from all students.

We learned how to work the system and we learned to be happy about that. We learned not to ask for more and to save our curiosity till after school. What we did not have was a place to be curious together and in the open, or even know that we were not alone. We knew about what we did from 7:30 – 2:30, and we knew about all the homework we did afterwards … these were all the things we had in common. What in retrospect seems obvious now, is that we must have all indulged in wandering thoughts. After class and even during class …

In school, we had to answer questions. To question answers we slipped into our own worlds of beckoning possibilities, where nothing was dumb or embarrassing or took up valuable time of other students or risked offending authorities. There normal force, set, commutative property – these had to answer to us. What on earth are you and if you are so obvious why are you in our textbook? Clearly there is more than meets the eye … only no one would tell us about it or even admit it – it is so easy, the impatient silence seemed to insist whenever I even began to raise a doubt about these concepts in the classroom, get on with it!

What is number? and other Insights

When one appreciates the value of slow learning, one does not “teach numbers” or “teach letters” but simply notices the moments when one’s child stumbles upon these concepts and tries them out. Most likely one might miss “the moment” when a child first encounters these, if there is such a thing as the first encounter, but whenever it comes to one’s notice that the child is versed in these concepts, one can discover new things by observing how they approach and resist them, how they question and use them. Whenever this happens with my daughter, I tend to stop whatever I am doing and almost slow down the moment, just to make sure I don’t speed it up. I respond very slowly, refraining from giving any additional information, but asking questions in language as close as possible to what my daughter has used.

For example recently she said, “Do you ever wonder why you are you and not just someone playing with a doll that is you?” Whoa! I stopped in my tracks, as if into my lap had floated a gift wrapped in layers and layers of delicate paper … that one must open with care, so as not to disturb the next layer or remove too many layers at once, and risk missing some nuances of meaning.

Similar treasures are packed into questions and comments or even gestures, if we know how to notice them, of infants and toddlers.

– lines / mountains
– place value – value of the number zero.
– two, two …

Among the most precious gifts of slow learning is the chance to ask questions such as “what is number” and observe how someone who is pre-numerate approaches this concept. While today one might worry if their child “learned numbers” later than the expected average age, one may instead appreciate this rare opportunity to become privy to insights on such basic questions as “what is number?”

Elizabeth Spelke, psychologist, asks such questions:

‘What is number, space, agency, and how does knowledge in each category develop from its minimal state?’ ”

Here is the article.

New York Times

Profiles in Science | Elizabeth S. Spelke

Insights From the Youngest Minds

Erik Jacobs for The New York Times

Elizabeth S. Spelke: A video interview with the Harvard cognitive psychologist on babies and the nature of human knowledge.

Published: April 30, 2012 199 Comments

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Seated in a cheerfully cramped monitoring room at the Harvard University Laboratory for Developmental Studies, Elizabeth S. Spelke, a professor of psychology and a pre-eminent researcher of the basic ingredient list from which all human knowledge is constructed, looked on expectantly as her students prepared a boisterous 8-month-old girl with dark curly hair for the onerous task of watching cartoons.

The video clips featured simple Keith Haring-type characters jumping, sliding and dancing from one group to another. The researchers’ objective, as with half a dozen similar projects under way in the lab, was to explore what infants understand about social groups and social expectations.

Yet even before the recording began, the 15-pound research subject made plain the scope of her social brain. She tracked conversations, stared at newcomers and burned off adult corneas with the brilliance of her smile. Dr. Spelke, who first came to prominence by delineating how infants learn about objects, numbers, the lay of the land, shook her head in self-mocking astonishment.

“Why did it take me 30 years to start studying this?” she said. “All this time I’ve been giving infants objects to hold, or spinning them around in a room to see how they navigate, when what they really wanted to do was engage with other people!”

Dr. Spelke, 62, is tall and slim, and parts her long hair down the middle, like a college student. She dresses casually, in a corduroy jumper or a cardigan and slacks, and when she talks, she pitches forward and plants forearms on thighs, hands clasped, seeming both deeply engaged and ready to bolt. The lab she founded with her colleague Susan Carey is strewed with toys and festooned with children’s T-shirts, but the Elmo atmospherics belie both the lab’s seriousness of purpose and Dr. Spelke’s towering reputation among her peers in cognitive psychology.

“When people ask Liz, ‘What do you do?’ she tells them, ‘I study babies,’ ” said Steven Pinker, a fellow Harvard professor and the author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” among other books. “That’s endearingly self-deprecating, but she sells herself short.”

What Dr. Spelke is really doing, he said, is what Descartes, Kant and Locke tried to do. “She is trying to identify the bedrock categories of human knowledge. She is asking, ‘What is number, space, agency, and how does knowledge in each category develop from its minimal state?’ ”

Dr. Spelke studies babies not because they’re cute but because they’re root. “I’ve always been fascinated by questions about human cognition and the organization of the human mind,” she said, “and why we’re good at some tasks and bad at others.”

But the adult mind is far too complicated, Dr. Spelke said, “too stuffed full of facts” to make sense of it. In her view, the best way to determine what, if anything, humans are born knowing, is to go straight to the source, and consult the recently born.

Decoding Infants’ Gaze

Dr. Spelke is a pioneer in the use of the infant gaze as a key to the infant mind — that is, identifying the inherent expectations of babies as young as a week or two by measuring how long they stare at a scene in which those presumptions are upended or unmet. “More than any scientist I know, Liz combines theoretical acumen with experimental genius,” Dr. Carey said. Nancy Kanwisher, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., put it this way: “Liz developed the infant gaze idea into a powerful experimental paradigm that radically changed our view of infant cognition.”

Here, according to the Spelke lab, are some of the things that babies know, generally before the age of 1:

They know what an object is: a discrete physical unit in which all sides move roughly as one, and with some independence from other objects.

“If I reach for a corner of a book and grasp it, I expect the rest of the book to come with me, but not a chunk of the table,” said Phil Kellman, Dr. Spelke’s first graduate student, now at the University of California, Los Angeles.

A baby has the same expectation. If you show the baby a trick sequence in which a rod that appears to be solid moves back and forth behind another object, the baby will gape in astonishment when that object is removed and the rod turns out to be two fragments.

“The visual system comes equipped to partition a scene into functional units we need to know about for survival,” Dr. Kellman said. Wondering whether your bag of four oranges puts you over the limit for the supermarket express lane? A baby would say, “You pick up the bag, the parts hang together, that makes it one item, so please get in line.”

Babies know, too, that objects can’t go through solid boundaries or occupy the same position as other objects, and that objects generally travel through space in a continuous trajectory. If you claimed to have invented a transporter device like the one in “Star Trek,” a baby would scoff.

Babies are born accountants. They can estimate quantities and distinguish between more and less. Show infants arrays of, say, 4 or 12 dots and they will match each number to an accompanying sound, looking longer at the 4 dots when they hear 4 sounds than when they hear 12 sounds, even if each of the 4 sounds is played comparatively longer. Babies also can perform a kind of addition and subtraction, anticipating the relative abundance of groups of dots that are being pushed together or pulled apart, and looking longer when the wrong number of dots appears.

Babies are born Euclideans. Infants and toddlers use geometric clues to orient themselves in three-dimensional space, navigate through rooms and locate hidden treasures. Is the room square or rectangular? Did the nice cardigan lady put the Slinky in a corner whose left wall is long or short?

At the same time, the Spelke lab discovered, young children are quite bad at using landmarks or décor to find their way. Not until age 5 or 6 do they begin augmenting search strategies with cues like “She hid my toy in a corner whose left wall is red rather than white.”

“That was a deep surprise to me,” Dr. Spelke said. “My intuition was, a little kid would never make the mistake of ignoring information like the color of a wall.” Nowadays, she continued, “I don’t place much faith in my intuitions, except as a starting place for designing experiments.”

These core mental modules — object representation, approximate number sense and geometric navigation — are all ancient systems shared at least in part with other animals; for example, rats also navigate through a maze by way of shape but not color. The modules amount to baby’s first crib sheet to the physical world.

“The job of the baby,” Dr. Spelke said, “is to learn.”

Role of Language

More recently, she and her colleagues have begun identifying some of the baseline settings of infant social intelligence. Katherine D. Kinzler, now of the University of Chicago, and Kristin Shutts, now at the University of Wisconsin, have found that infants just a few weeks old show a clear liking for people who use speech patterns the babies have already been exposed to, and that includes the regional accents, twangs, and R’s or lack thereof. A baby from Boston not only gazes longer at somebody speaking English than at somebody speaking French; the baby gazes longest at a person who sounds like Click and Clack of the radio show “Car Talk.”

In guiding early social leanings, accent trumps race. A white American baby would rather accept food from a black English-speaking adult than from a white Parisian, and a 5-year-old would rather befriend a child of another race who sounds like a local than one of the same race who has a foreign accent.

Other researchers in the Spelke lab are studying whether babies expect behavioral conformity among members of a group (hey, the blue character is supposed to be jumping like the rest of the blues, not sliding like the yellow characters); whether they expect other people to behave sensibly (if you’re going to reach for a toy, will you please do it efficiently rather than let your hand meander all over the place?); and how babies decide whether a novel object has “agency” (is this small, fuzzy blob active or inert?).

Dr. Spelke is also seeking to understand how the core domains of the human mind interact to yield our uniquely restless and creative intelligence — able to master calculus, probe the cosmos and play a Bach toccata as no bonobo or New Caledonian crow can. Even though “our core systems are fundamental yet limited,” as she put it, “we manage to get beyond them.”

Dr. Spelke has proposed that human language is the secret ingredient, the cognitive catalyst that allows our numeric, architectonic and social modules to join forces, swap ideas and take us to far horizons. “What’s special about language is its productive combinatorial power,” she said. “We can use it to combine anything with anything.”

She points out that children start integrating what they know about the shape of the environment, their navigational sense, with what they know about its landmarks — object recognition — at just the age when they begin to master spatial language and words like “left” and “right.” Yet, she acknowledges, her ideas about language as the central consolidator of human intelligence remain unproved and contentious.

Whatever their aim, the studies in her lab are difficult, each requiring scores of parentally volunteered participants. Babies don’t follow instructions and often “fuss out” mid-test, taking their data points with them.

Yet Dr. Spelke herself never fusses out or turns rote. She prowls the lab from a knee-high perspective, fretting the details of an experiment like Steve Jobs worrying over iPhone pixel density. “Is this car seat angled a little too far back?” she asked her students, poking the little velveteen chair every which way. “I’m concerned that a baby will have to strain too much to see the screen and decide it’s not worth the trouble.”

Should a student or colleague disagree with her, Dr. Spelke skips the defensive bristling, perhaps in part because she is serenely self-confident about her intellectual powers. “It was all easy for me,” she said of her early school years. “I don’t think I had to work hard until I got to college, or even graduate school.”

So, Radcliffe Phi Beta Kappa, ho hum. “My mother is absolutely brilliant, not just in science, but in everything,” said her daughter, Bridget, a medical student. “There’s a joke in my family that my mother and brother are the geniuses, and Dad and I are the grunts.” (“I hate this joke,” Dr. Spelke commented by e-mail, “and utterly reject this distinction!”)

Above all, Dr. Spelke relishes a good debate. “She welcomes people disagreeing with her,” said her husband, Elliott M. Blass, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts. “She says it’s not about being right, it’s about getting it right.”

When Lawrence H. Summers, then president of Harvard, notoriously suggested in 2005 that the shortage of women in the physical sciences might be partly due to possible innate shortcomings in math, Dr. Spelke zestily entered the fray. She combed through results from her lab and elsewhere on basic number skills, seeking evidence of early differences between girls and boys. She found none.

“My position is that the null hypothesis is correct,” she said. “There is no cognitive difference and nothing to say about it.”

Dr. Spelke laid out her case in an acclaimed debate with her old friend Dr. Pinker, who defended the Summers camp.

“I have enormous respect for Steve, and I think he’s great,” Dr. Spelke said. “But when he argues that it makes sense that so many women are going into biology and medicine because those are the ‘helping’ professions, well, I remember when being a doctor was considered far too full of blood and gore for women and their uncontrollable emotions to handle.”

Raising Her Babies

For her part, Dr. Spelke has passionately combined science and motherhood. Her mother studied piano at Juilliard but gave it up when Elizabeth was born. “I felt terribly guilty about that,” Dr. Spelke said. “I never wanted my children to go through the same thing.”

When her children were young, Dr. Spelke often took them to the lab or held meetings at home. The whole family traveled together — France, Spain, Sweden, Egypt, Turkey — never reserving lodgings but finding accommodations as they could. (The best, Dr. Blass said, was a casbah in the Moroccan desert.)

Scaling the academic ranks, Dr. Spelke still found time to supplement her children’s public school education with a home-schooled version of the rigorous French curriculum. She baked their birthday cakes from scratch, staged elaborate treasure hunts and spent many days each year creating their Halloween costumes: Bridget as a cave girl or her favorite ballet bird; her younger brother, Joey, as a drawbridge.

“Growing up in my house was a constant adventure,” Bridget said. “As a new mother myself,” she added, “I don’t know how my mom did it.”

Is Dr. Spelke the master of every domain? It’s enough to make the average mother fuss out.

NEW EXPERIENCES Elizabeth Spelke with her daughter, Bridget, in France in 1988, on one of many family trips.

Enlarge This Image

DAUGHTER Bridget Spelke, who is a medical student, in South Africa. “My mother is absolutely brilliant, not just in science, but in everything,” she said.

Readers’ Comments

A version of this article appeared in print on May 1, 2012, on page D1 of the New York edition with the headline: From the Minds of Babes.

Profiles in Science

Elizabeth S. Spelke

This is the ninth in an occasional series of articles and videos about leaders in science.

Is RTE Act concerned with homeschoolers?

As I read about the Right to Education (RTE) Act, I am unconvinced that it is concerned with homeschoolers who are happy to be homeschooling.

Nor do I believe happy homeschoolers need to view it as an obstacle to free homeschooling.  In fact, for those concerned about entry into the school system after some years of homeschooling, it seems to provide assurance since it states that schools cannot deny admission.

Section 18 seems to have raised special concern, and is being quoted in the media as being against homeschooling. I believe this is because the petitioners in the Delhi High Court have interpreted it that way.  But need it be interpreted that way?

Here is the first para:

Section 18:  No school, other than a school established, owned or controlled by the appropriate Government or the local authority shall, after the comencement of this Act, be established or function, without obaining a certificate of recognition from such authority, by making an application in such form and manner, as may be prescribed.

I don’t think it is addressing the concept of homeschooling at all.  It is concerned with the case in which a parent takes responsibility for educating someone other than his or her own children – and in some cases also takes fees or collects donations for the same.  That is why it talks about “alternative schools.”   It is talking about whether an institution can call itself a school.   Legally and socially there is a clear difference  between one’s rights to teach or care for one’s own children and one’s right towards others’ children.  At a small, occasional scale, looking after others’ children does not come under any regulation at all, but if one sets up a day care center then it may have to follow certain norms, obtain licenses, pay taxes, etc.

One may argue for the right of alternative school to operate without obtaining the certificates stipulated by the act but I would not be inclined to lump homeschoolers along with alternative schools, or to say that we are also restricted by this act.  I believe we are not.  I am inclined to trust the common sense reflected in this Letter from Department of School Education & Literacy.

Here is a scanned copy of the RTE Act, as published in the Gazette of India, 26 August 2009.

What is learning?

What is learning?

A child says, while pointing to objects consecutively, "two, two, two"

Observing this, her parents point out a picture of an octopus in a book and ask her how many arms it has. She obliges, "two, two, two, two, two, two, two, two!" The last "two" is said with a flourish, as if to report the total – or that is how it sounds to us, since we are used to counting in this cadence.

This is precious baby talk and much as her parents might delight in it, she will (all too quickly) grow out of it. The child, in this case, is the daughter of my friends, and she recently turned two. It seems she has been indicating things and saying "two-three, two-three."

The day will come when she abandons her system and counts as we do – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5!

Now what is learning …

When she said "2, 2, 2, 2, 2!" was that learning?

Or when she started saying 2-3 -2-3 was that learning?

Or when she says 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 will that be learning?

And what was she learning, and when? The concept of number? Of quantity?

I think that what she learned first of all was the concept of difference. Of non-one-ness. So in fact the word "two" did not signify the quantity two, so much as it signified "another." Now hear her "count" or point out the arms of the octopus: "Another, another, another, another, another, another, another, another!"

Another, again, more .. such words work magic for the newly verbal. They can serve to name anything, provided one of said thing is there to serve as a reference.

And when finally one replaces "another" with respective names, and two with three and four … what is one learning then? The names of the things, in the prevailing language. In order that others may understand what one has already understood, but has to translate into their language.

Read more: Two, another two and now there is a three

Learning at Home and Beyond: Who does it?

Learning at Home and Beyond: Who does it?

Learning without schooling is in some sense as old as the hills. In the context of the prevailing modern education system, starting from Kindergarten and continuing through high school as a preparation for college and career, those who have the means to enroll their children in school but opt not to do so are considered to be homeschooling. In this sense of the term, homeschooling has a more recent history, and many of the families who identify as homeschooling draw inspiration from American authors of the 1960s and 1970s including Jean Liedloff and John Holt. The United States census estimates that 1.5 – 2 million children, or 3% of those in grades K-12, are educated at home and estimates that number is growing at the rate of 15 to 20 percent per year1.

In India I am not aware of any official or unofficial estimate of the number of children homeschooling in this modern sense. One cannot assume that any child not enrolled in school would, given the opportunity, prefer to be there, but it is fair to say that all children deserve and would like to have the conditions that make that opportunity possible – secure home and family environment, with resources required for life and livelihood, health and leisure.

Although those who are generally recognized as homeschoolers could without much difficulty go to school and pass if they put in reasonable effort, there are others who leave schools because in spite of their efforts, they are not able to follow what is taught or to pass the tests. Often the classroom is overcrowded, poorly lit, the teacher is unable to attend to each student, or may not attend class at all.  The textbook may be dull, difficult to read or not in the student’s native language.  There is no time to ask questions and no one to answer.

A movement is afoot to reject the term “dropout” and recognize these students as “walkouts” – leaving a system that has failed them, and seeking something better. To find and create that something better requires a community effort. The movement of walkouts envisions learning as a social experience taking place in living communities via countless paths, and not in factory-model schools with standard outcomes. In a learning society, all can learn from one another, anywhere and anytime, regardless, ideally, of class, caste, gender, age, or educational background.

Without estimating the number, the Ministry of Human Resource Development Department of School Education and Literacy has acknowledged, in a letter responding to an enquiry concerning homeschooling in India that:

“In India, some parents do opt for home-schooling for their children.”

Why do it?

Again, to quote the Ministry of Human Resource Development Department of School Education and Literacy:

Parents who are otherwise dissatisfied with the curriculum and syllabus followed in schools, or feel that the school schedule does not leave their children with any time to pursue other interests follow the home-schooling approach.

The Ministry has eloquently summarized the broad range of reasons that appeal to families who decide to follow this approach.

How to do it?

There are in a sense, as many methods of homeschooling as there are homeschoolers.  Some methods are organized with ready-to-use curricular resources, support groups, expert guidance, and training sessions for those who follow the chosen method.

One can use textbooks corresponding to school subjects, but it is not necessary to do so. What books to use, whether to use them at all, regularly, or just a little, what other paths are out there – once you start exploring these questions you will find people ready to share their experiences and insights with you. By trying things out and seeing what works for your children, you will find your own way.

There are a number of theories about methods – whether to use them, how to choose them, and when to let go of them. To anyone sorting through the question of “how do I do it?” I recommend this article by veteran homeschooling mother Lillian Jones: “Considering Methods & Styles of Homeschooling:”

There are countless websites on homeschooling, learning, living without school.

While these websites can offer reassurance or new ideas, it is not necessary to read them if they are not your cup of tea. What is necessary is to connect with your child, be available so that your child can connect with you, and create an environment where both of you can hear your own thoughts, express them and listen to each other.  Regardless of your method of learning, one precious gift you have given yourself is the gift of time. Your child is now able to do things for as long as he wants rather than being arbitrarily told, time’s up, next subject, or no, you need to finish that before you can do this.   When there are time constraints, one can take the child into confidence and address them together rather than obeying a bell on a daily or even hourly basis.

When people hear about homeschooling for the first time, it is typically around this point in the conversation, just as they are about to get happily lost in this world where we learn at our own time and place and pace, that a looming question arises. What about Board Exams?

What about Board Exams?

According to the Ministry of Human Resource Development Department of School Education and Literacy:

There is no separate syllabus for home-schooling. Most children use the textbooks prescribed for formal schools. On reaching Class 10 a home-schooler can take the board exam privately by registering with the National Institute of Open Schooling or International General Certificate of Secondary Education. This is done at the child’s pace and time….”

The National Institute for Open Schooling offers “On Demand Examination” making exams available each month so that a student can appear for any subject as and when he or she is ready to do so. In India, the British Council offers the IGSCE and related examinations2. Exams are also offered by Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) and the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. More information about these exams is provided in Priya Desikan’s article, Boards and Homeschoolers on the Swashikshan: Indian Association of Homeschoolers.

In India, a growing number of homeschoolers who are now young adults have taken exams through one of these standard Boards. There are qualified tutors and institutions that help out-of-school candidates to prepare for these. Others have been able to demonstrate equivalent readiness for advanced courses or careers without having taken these exams or have chosen paths for livelihood preparation that did not require these exams.

Swaraj University in Udaipur offers students, or khojis (seekers) the opportunity to study and practice in fields of their choice in a two-year program. It has no standard syllabus, requires no entrance exams or diplomas for admission and grants no degrees3. Swaraj students can create a portfolio of the projects they completed that may serve for gaining admission to higher studies or employment. Swaraj supports khojis wishing to set up their own community enterprises, and maintains a database of employers who accept a portfolio in lieu of a degree. Swaraj resists the commodification of community resources and promotes a kind of sharing termed as “gift economy,” which would, if practiced fully, make employment and income redundant. Even small steps in this direction help to control price rise, reduce waste, and incrementally curb the acceleration of the “rat race.”

This would free people’s time and energy for meaningful work and play and improve our collective quality of life and engagement with planet earth. Dreamers may have a natural appetite for this way of thinking, yet it is eminently practical as well. The rapidly changing world offers no guarantees and many reasons to doubt that the educational and employment structures of the past will be relevant in the future. Such is the premise of Ken Robinson’s talk at the 2006 conference of Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED), called “Changing Educational Paradigms.” Robinson narrates, with generous doses of humour, the demise of creativity in the prevailing school system.  So what? one might ask.  Is it not necessary, one might ask, to learn what is already known before one sets about creating?

To that question, I return another:   What is Learning?


1 Kurt J. Bauman, “Home Schooling in the United States: Trends and Characteristics” US Census Bureau, Working Paper Series No. 53, August 2001, retrieved in 2012 from…

2 Details about the O-Level, A-Level, and IGCSE examinations offered by the British Council in India are available at

3 Manish Jain and Shilpla Jain. .Healing Ourselves from the Diploma Disease. Shikshantar: Udaipur, 2005.

What curriculum are you using?

What curriculum are you using?

The question of curriculum often gives rise to unnecessary confusion, perhaps because those often called upon the answer the question, rarely have a direct answer like “CBSE,” or “Waldorf,” or “Khan.”  It ends up as “We are a little Waldorfy” or “We mix and match,” or “Life is our curriculum” or “Why put knowledge into boxes and give your kids worksheets when you can give them the world?” This leaves a beatific smile on the face of the one who answered, but a blank and almost apologetic look on the one who asked the (apparently silly) question.

A prevailing misconception among homeschoolers is that there are those who follow curriculum and those who don’t. And those who sometimes kind of do. And that these two directions towards and away from curriculum, worksheets and structured educational activity define a linear spectrum of those on the one hand who follow curriculum and conventional educational goals, called “homeschoolers,” and “unschoolers” on the other, dismissing them in the name of free thinking.

Let me take this opportunity to step up to the soapbox and say that this is not a meaningful distinction between homeschooling and unschooling. Learning without textbooks and planned lessons will not automatically throw you into the weird wild world of “unschooling” unless you choose to go there. Dissing curriculum (e.g. saying “I don’t use curriculum”) will not automatically make you an unschooler charting brave new paths. Nor will using a worksheet or textbook (or – gasp – bedtime) demote you from the coolness that is unschooling.

When I think of curriculum, I think of currents – roaring ocean currents and also whispering currents as the rain drops through the soil and seeks out other drops through capillary action.  I think of thoughts sailing along rivers and tributaries, or lighting along ever branching out networks in the brain.  I think of roots, rooting deep into the ground, seeking moisture and and drawing nutrients towards themselves.

When we apply fertilizer to a plant, then the roots need not extend as far for us to see results.  The plant grows, the fruit or vegetable gains weight.  Fertilizer can only give a plant the nutrients it contains.  When we nourish the soil, the numerous organisms living in it make not only six or seven micronutrients but hundreds of them and the plant works within that ecosystem.  The fruit or vegetable may gain less weight, but its nutrients come from deep within the soil where the roots have taken time to reach.

Jonathan Kozol writes about a student who was failing tests in school (“The Road to Rome,” in Shame of the Nation, pg . 130.):

He often misses what most others think to be the “main point” of an essay he has read or lecture he has heard, which may be one reason why the comprehension questions on a standardized exam sometimes befuddled him. Instead, he often tends to fasten on a piece of what he’s read or heard that corresponds to something he already cares about and finds his own unusual back-channel to the essence of the work or to the meaning of the man, which leaves him with a sense of intimate association.

Those channels, taking the student from one idea to another, are the student’s own curriculum.  They may lead him to people, places, books, even textbooks, but it is his own inner curriculum that is leading him.  The books may also open up further channels, provoking further paths of inquiry.

Of this approach to learning, that I am calling the inner curriculum, Jonathan Kozol writes,

One result of this, I think, is that his memories of these encounters with a person, or a passage of prose writing, or a poem, linger in his mind …

This inner curriculum is so strong that even if one must go through a program dictated by others, it will still find ways to express itself, just as a river finds its way around a dam or grass still grows through paved roads, and the memories of meaningful encounters linger.  This is the curriculum that you are already using, and will always use.  If you are at the same time following a Standardized Curriculum from a Board of Education, your inner guide will help you latch on to what nourishes you and it will also help you to forget what is useless and keep the mind free to learn, discover and rediscover.

How do you homeschool a baby?

Recent media blitz on homeschooling in India has caused an uptick in inquiries coming in.  Suddenly India Homeschoolers is getting membership requests from parents of kids as young as 3, 2, and even 1 year of age.  Practicing homeschoolers raise an eyebrow at the very idea of homeschooling or schooling children under 6 but we are soon to be outnumbered by people who stubbornly identify themselves as homeschoolers even though their children have not reached school age.
And what is school age?  Six?  Five?  Four?  Then what is pre-school age?  As it races to the bottom, people are cashing in from all corners.  Baby music classes, toddler phonetics classes, gym classes are sprouting up everywhere and what parent would want to miss out on the promised “brain stimulation,” preparation for “child observation” and “free time for mom?”

So then, what to tell that brave parent who chooses not to enroll her toddler into such classes, and asks, what do I do instead?Here is an actual conversation I had recently with someone who was just beginning her exploration into homeschooling. She got my number through a series of mutual acquaintances.  Her side of the conversation is in italics.


What curriculum are you using? she asked.

Not wanting to scare her away, I simply said, we don’t use a specific fixed curriculum, we do various things. I also mentioned that in the early years it is vital to keep mental space free for exploration. If you start telling, this is shape, this is color, this is ABC, this is this animal, etc, then one hinders the process of discovery.

Then I asked her how old her kids were – they were 1 and 2. So I asked, “why are you interested in homeschooling?”

Because I don’t want to put them into school right now and make them learn ABC, etc.

But I want to homeschool them, not unschool them. Are you unschooling or homeschooling?

Before we go there let us say that maybe you are planning to start school for them at age 6. Then how would you support their learning process in the 5 or 6 years of life?

They are already driven by a curiosity, opening up various paths of learning as they go along and if you want you can consider this a “curriculum” that is created by them, and is more powerful than what is designed by any Board of Education.

It is so powerful that even if you impose drill-and-fill type of education on them, they will still seek out spaces between and outside of that to explore what draws them. But you can choose to allow them more time and space to follow their own curriculum, and in the process they will be learning things that we don’t know they are learning, they will also be learning how to learn and investigating the purpose of things they are learning.

For example, when babies practice “baby talk” inventing sounds and words, that is all part of creating / learning language, as if no one had ever done it before and one was doing it from scratch. Eventually they will move on to the standardized language of those around them, but the early experiments with sound and sense are very important – similarly they will experiment with other concepts. If we short-circuit their own experiments by telling them what to learn and what is what, then we deprive them of intellectual exercise and expect them to be passive recipients of knowledge.

How do you teach? she asked.

I replied, “Can you give me an example of something you want to teach?”

Reading, phonetics

Are there books in your house?


Do you and others at home read these books?


In general, if a child is surrounded by people reading then she will learn to read just as she learned to walk and talk, driven by her own interest in what those around her are doing and in the case of walking and maybe talking, partly also by instinct – reading may not be instinctive but if people are reading and also reading to her, with her, then she will pick up the skills. The skills are not just phonetics, it is a whole relationship with language and that comes from using language and objects in a variety of ways. Telling stories is even more important than reading aloud from a book.

What are some things she likes to do?

She loves to hear stories. She also plays with blocks.

Storytelling & story-making is also happening when we play with blocks, dolls, kitchen utensils, mud, all of those contribute to our thinking skills, interpretive skills.

Okay, this gives me an idea. I don’t think I understood what unschooling was. The thing is that in my neighbourhood no one is homeschooling. So they all say I am risking her future.

As you can see by the end of the conversation, she felt that she had a better idea of what she wanted to do, but still needed help in explaining her decisions to her family and friends. But I think she gained confidence that help was available.