Attachment Parenting and Continuum Learning

 If play-school and pre-school prepare a child for school, how does a parent prepare a toddler or young child for a lifetime of learning?

The question arises because of the way schools are marketed in India, in a climate of fierce competition for admission. If, as in other countries, one was assured admission into first grade, or any grade thereafter, there would be no pressure on parents to make decisions regarding schooling prior to school-age. The Right to Education Act takes a step towards providing that assurance, because it in fact states that schools cannot deny admission. Read the rest of this entry »

Slow Learning

We often ask, what is learning? Now let us ask, what is slow learning?

1. Slow

In Space and Time in Classical Mechanics, Einstein asks to imagine that he has dropped a stone while in a moving train.  As it happens he asks us to imagine that he has dropped it outside the train, from the window, as the train movedi.

Inside a moving train, if we drop a stone we will see it fall down in a straight, vertical line.  If we are inside the moving train but drop the stone outside the train, we will see the same thing.  To the falling stone, once released from Einstein’s (or anyone’s) hand, it makes no difference whether it is inside or outside the train.

An observer outside the train, on the platform, (or on the embankment, as in Einstein’s tale), will see the stone come down in a parabolic path.  As if it were not merely dropped but thrown.  To those inside the train, moving forward at the same rate as the stone itself moves forward, the forward motion of the stone is invisible.  We might say it is non-existent or cancelled out, like the motion of the earth – which we do not count we are sitting still.  Or when we drop a stone while sitting still.

Now the question Einstein asks us is:  What did the stone do? Did it fall in a straight line or along a curve?

As Einstein goes on to explain in the rest of the book, Relativity: The Special and General Theory, questions of speed, distance and time become relative to the frame of reference.

Learning also takes many paths, perhaps all paths, as the quantum physicists say of particles. Is one path longer than another? Faster?

What parent or teacher is not familiar with this experience – in a conversation with a child, a flurry of ifs and buts arise, so that a simple point that that you thought you would explain in five minutes gets deferred for hours or days. Meanwhile as you follow the tangents, further questions arise. Is your original question forgotten? No, it is still out there, drawing you towards it via this loopy, squiggly, elliptical path. Teaching that is based on a fixed notion of the direct path may not allow for such digression. It may even subtly discourage it – akin to the terse “recalculating” one hears from navigation instruments in the car when one has veered away from the designated route. Yet the curiosity of children will keep these questions alive, patiently or impatiently awaiting their turn on the front burner.

If it takes two days to communicate a point that you thought would take five minutes, do you feel that time has been lost?  What happens when teaching complex concepts and skills – what if your child learns something months or years after the expected date? Sometimes people who want to trust the journey of learning find themselves wondering,

Is this child slow?  Is s/he falling behind?  Will it be difficult to catch up later?  Will it hurt if I push her or him?  At what point should I intervene?

Many people have written about these questions with well-reasoned points and evidence supporting a spectrum of approaches. Some suggest creative ways to encourage progress, indicators for intervention when there is no progress, or reassurance that it will happen in its own time.

Some will say, “they will learn it when they learn it.” Some will say, “they will learn it when they need it.”

But what is it? Do we know?

Maybe we do. Or maybe we only think we know.

Is my understanding, Wittgenstein asked, blindness to my lack of understanding? Often, he continued, it seems so to meii.

Me too! How often in school had I felt that I was expected to understand or at least pretend to understand something, glossing over whatever had made me reluctant to accept it. Years later, when I read Wittgenstein this sentiment helped me to understand my frustration, and reclaim my doubts throughout discussions of such concepts as normal force in physics or set in mathematics, considered too straightforward to interrogate.

“A set is a collection of objects,” I recall a teacher explaining. “So here, see this picture of various objects. I will draw a circle around it, now it is a set.”

Simple! But I did not understand. What exactly made this a set? Thinking back, it would probably have helped if someone had said, “set is a complex idea, there is a lot more to learn about it and some of it doesn’t even make sense, but that is part of what makes it fascinating. Today we are going to look at some simple examples, where we just circle things, call them sets, and consider how some sets are similar or different from others.”

“What makes something different?” That would have been my next question. Even if we didn’t pause right away to go down the roads exploring the definitions of set, same, different, it would have helped if we acknowledged that these were uncertain, and depended on more factors than we could ever pin down, rather than pretending that we knew just what they were and that the sensible response to a worksheet on the topic of sets was to circle the objects as instructed.

Such an acknowledgment is not unheard of. In fact, I can never forget the preface to my sixth grade math book. Meant for the teacher, it stated that “In this book we do not prove the commutative property or the identity property.” Amazing! So even statements like a=a or a+0=a or a+b=b+a could be proved, meaning they could also be questioned. How happy I was that the authors of the math textbook had chosen to confide this information in me.

Had they not done so, and regarded these equations as obvious, requiring no proof, then any question about them would have been regarded as pure nonsense, unthinkable. Now that they had acknowledged that it was indeed thinkable, not only could I patiently wait for higher level classes where we would be encouraged to think about such questions, but I could also have faith that the math I was part of something deeper, that touched the heart of what it meant to say a=a, indeed, what meaning was.

2.  Learning

Let me tell a story about our daughter and the (recently glamourous) subject of arithmetic.

From as far as we can remember, our daughter delighted in number, shape, order, series and various mathematical concepts.   She would observe shapes and patterns and then one fine day tell us something about them that would wow us.  She was equally thrilled to hear about math.  Indeed she heard math in places we would not have expected, casually comparing a musical piece to a multiplication process.

Everything reminded her of math.  She knew it too, and delighted in it.  While arranging her clothes in her shelves she referred to priority and order of operations.  While overhearing us refer to combinations and permutations in the context of tracing old classmates she immediately corrected us – “you can’t have permutations!”  Seeing our blank looks, she explained, “what would they do, enter the room in a different order?”

When it came to basic sums, though, she added on her fingers most of the time.  Would this be considered late?  Slow?


The Addition Table

The Addition Table

One day she arranged her dominoes in a pattern and called me to see that it served as an addition tableiii.   She arranged the dominoes such that you find the two numbers that need adding in their respective row and column, find where they intersect, and then count up all the dots on that domino. Most of us who do one-digit addition without thinking about it would find this more time consuming. If she had learned addition by heart then would she have ever devised this addition table? Arranged in various patterns, the dominoes illustrate concepts that might take a greater understanding of math or number theory to describe in words. And they get to the heart of what it means to add.  (She has demonstrated here.)

I bring this example up because when we talk about how unschooling facilitates learning at one’s own pace, most people think it means that we need to be patient with “slow” learning but rarely we get an example of learning that is made possible precisely because something else was not yet learned or was learned “slowly.”

If we rush to “understand” addition, as indicated by correctly and promptly adding given numbers, we may miss out on investigating what addition is, and what numbers are.

Had she memorized her basic addition facts, would she have devised an addition table?  Perhaps.  When?  Would that have been considered late?  Or slow?

What did she learn by making the addition table?  How was this learning facilitated by the fact that addition had not yet been ticked off her list of skills to master?

Learn as if you would live forever, said Mahatma Gandhi.  Not only will you be unafraid to learn something new, you will be unafraid not to know, and unafraid to say “I don’t know.” You will not fake it, you will not be rushed to learn something when you are arrested by something more fundamental.  And as we approach the answer to one question we may again find our path slowed by still further questions.

For example – when coming across the phrase “first prime minister” (of India), my daughter was not interested in the name corresponding to this epithet.  She wanted to know what this phrase meant.  A question about what the “first” of a kind could be, how a given specimen could be “first” of a kind at all.

Her question:  So did they already decide to call the person a Prime Minister?

As I collected my thoughts to answer, there came another question – But who, they?

A question about the nature of authority itself, who vests it in whom.   (Is this history?  Or math?  Or politics?  Or philosophy?)

And then:  When did they call it India?

Those who “know” the answer to the question “Who was India’s first prime minister?” would probably answer the question, quiz-show style.

But how would they “know” such information?   And how would they “know” that one responds to a question with “the answer” rather than with further questions?

Slow learning empowers the learner over the learned and values the slow in the spirit of the movements for slow food, slow money and slow love.

Of slow love, it is said, “Slow love is about knowing what you’ve got before it’s goneiv.”

You can look up the name of the prime minister.  But when you stop asking questions about first-ness and prime-ness, where do you go to tap into your earlier wonder about these concepts?

i Albert Einstein, “Space and Time in Classical Mechanics” in Relativity: The Special and General Theory. 1920. Accessed online from on June 19, 2013.

ii Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, §418.

iii I have described this in a comment posted on Peter Gray’s article, “Kids Learn Math Easily When They Control Their Own Learning“ in his blog Freedom To Learn.

iv– Dominque Browning, Slow Love, pg. 5.

Slow Learning” also  appears on the website of Swashikshan: Indian Association of Homeschoolers.

Right to Education

After reading Alfie Kohn What does it Mean to be Educated? and Jonathon Kozol On Being a Teacher I am all fired up. Must do something, etc etc.

A few weeks ago I was all fired up when my neighbour told me what happened to her son at school. The English Ma’am wrote something on the board. It contained an error, which the boy noted (aloud). The Ma’am reprimanded him and he remained silent.

Considering all the bad grammar I hear routinely, I guess I should not be too surprised at this. But an English teacher? This boy is an avid reader so I am sure he has an ear for correct English, certainly at the grade school level, and apparently more so than that of his teacher. The word in question was the plural of sheep which the boy correctly pointed out, was sheep. Now in this situation, did the teacher

a – acknowledge her error and appreciate the alert student who cared enough to point it out?
b – say, oh, is that so, let me look it up and confirm?
c – say, “Do you know better than your teacher?”

The correct answer: c. No prizes for guessing and no extra credit for realizing that the tone and volume in which it was asked meant that there was only one acceptable answer to that question. The boy said, “No, Ma’am” but later confided to his mother that he had wanted to say, “Yes, Ma’am.”

Is this not a violation of this boy’s right to education? He may be in school, attending class, doing homework, getting marks. But is his right to education respected? When he speaks is he heard with interest, with patience?  When he asks a question, is he encouraged? Answered? Or told not to ask? Even when he responds correctly he risks being silenced. Is honesty something to be read in the Morals class textbook1 or is one encouraged to speak the truth, even when your voice shakes2? What is the role of the teacher? What power did she hold that caused this boy to back down, even though he believed what he said? Grades? Punishment? I doubt he was thinking so far ahead. Being snarked at by the teacher when he was merely making a grammar correction, as he would expect her to do if he made an error, was no doubt disturbing enough that his only aim at that moment would have been to make it stop.

And what about something more consequential than the correct plural of sheep? What about questions of history or science or social studies where there can indeed be multiple approaches and viewpoints, leave alone errors in the textbook or in the teacher’s lecture? We have even faced ambiguity in the grade 1 math textbook! Do students stand a chance at having their voices heard on such matters?  Are students allowed to try out ideas or methods that they may eventually discard, i.e, make mistakes?  And what would we in fact prefer, that they think and develop a viewpoint, compare with others, examine consequences, test against evidence, revise and refine …. or that they repeat the views provided by a textbook author or a teacher? Doing the latter ostensibly requires less effort and yet most children, given the chance, will do the former unless constrained to do the latter, for the sake of the grade and the teacher’s approval. Such constraint, which is the norm in the vast majority of the schools in India, public, private, elite or international, is a stark violation of children’s right to education.

How do we want to read our history lessons? Ahimsa, satyagraha, are these formulae to be memorized for an exam? Or are they living principles?  Can we too speak truth to power? Can we unearth the lies told in our history books, as James Loewen has done for US History? Can we question authority? Are we willing to risk our comforts for our values? Or vice-versa?

Emphasis on rote learning and standardized testing widens the gap between the haves and have-nots, and not only because it renders students passive consumers of pre-fabricated knowledge.  The haves, after all have opportunities outside of school to explore ideas freely. They may converse daily with family and friends and at some point, usually quite early, recognize that school tests are a game they play and but a thin slice of the wide arc of learning that beckons.  Even if they have little time outside of school,  whatever original observations or experiments they make are duly recognized and valued.  In our neighbourhood the children have buried various objects, planted seeds, made up imaginary games and plays – when children in poorer communities do such things they may get reprimanded for “wasting time.”   In our neighbourhood when parents  come to drag their kids home from the playground, they do so wistfully, and often try to compensate for it during other times.  Even this modicum of awareness of the value of free play is denied to many children.

Standards are not confined to “the basics” of reading, writing and arithmetic but extend to social and economic values, which are increasingly dictated by corporate interests, either through direct intervention in school programming, or through emphasis on ranking and testing. Alfie Kohn talks about this: .

In India, where test-based teaching is unlikely to be dethroned anytime soon, even corporations are making fashionable noises against “rote learning.” They are not against standardized tests, mind you, they just believe they can get better results on those tests through hip means such as independent, innovative and critical thinking.

from The Unschool Bus

I expect you all to be independent, innovative, critical thinkers ….

Thanks to The Unschool Bus  for this apt illustration.

The press drums along with them without questioning the goals of education, appropriately shocked (shocked!) that children can’t keep their Gandhis straight or give liberal minded answers to questions on rights of women and immigrants. See The Hindu, 12 Dec 2011, “Learning by rote prevalent in top schools too.”  In the entire article neither the top-ness of these schools or the validity of the tests are called into question.  Nor are we invited to wonder why the children have “wrong” answers.  For the record I would be open to hearing about how the “shape of a square object would change if it is tilted,” as nearly half the sampled children apparently opined.

If the powers that be in the classroom are not answerable to the students, if the questioning goes only one way, and answers are determined by the questioner, then it is inevitable that the those who succeed in this path would need to keep it that way.

But do students, parents or teachers really believe that it should be that way? I don’t think so. We also believe that education and literacy enable us to go to the source, to look for evidence, to take it apart and see how it works and how it doesn’t, and even make our own models and theories and stories.  Insofar as everyone gains these abilities, no one can cheat another, and therefore we can, together, build a more just society.

Serious change is required for education and literacy to achieve their potential to act as tools of empowerment. Today we see them promoting conformity and consumerism and widening inequality. Right to Education, however, must not only mean right to be admitted in a school and consume the information and ideas dictated, and speak only on command, but right to express ideas, ask questions and actually learn without fear. On not need to be in school to exercise these rights, but certainly no school should infringe upon them. Outside of school, children do ask questions, question the answers, and even question the questions.  Right to education must include the right to make mistakes, not only the right to be right.   Unfortunately in school, the vast majority of students get little time or space to ask or even answer questions in their own words, or ponder questions tangential to what the teacher or test-book has asked.  Their role is to reproduce the answers provided to them. Children who step outside of this expected role will typically be punished by a bad mark, humiliation or even physical punishment. There is no grievance redressal mechanism for children whose right to education is violated in this way.

to be continued…

[1] In the closing scene of Bangaru Papa, Sekhar, regretting his inability to stand by his principles when his family prohibits him from marrying Papa on grounds of her caste and class, says his high status demands that moral values remain confined to the textbook.  See from 6:34 in this .
[2] Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn is noted for saying, “Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes.”

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.


Which Bird is Closer to Home?

Which Bird is Nearer to Home?

Children, please open your Math-Magic Books and turn to page 6.

Now which bird is nearer to home? 

Child points to brown bird.


Shows with finger the path from the bird to the tree.    Both bird and tree are slightly in the background.  The bird has a slightly lost expression, but seems to be headed towards the tree.

Showing the lavender bird, “What about this one?”

Child points to the brick house and says, “that is not the bird’s home.”   This bird is headed straight for the neatly thatched roof of the brick house.

* * * * *

Above is what actually happened one day, years ago, when I brought out the Math-magic book and looked it over with my daughter.  I could have gone on to show that even if we were talking trees, the lavender bird is also closer to the trees.   But that would have just been contrived, as if I was trying to get the answer expected by the book.   And it is not even entirely clear that the lavender bird is closer to the tree in the background – even if on paper the linear distance is less, the perspective in the drawing suggests that one tree is further from the viewer than the other.  Same with the birds.  Which tree is home to which bird?  We don’t know.  The drawing does not give us this information.  In retrospect, it also seems likely that in judging “close to home” she looked not only at the scalar distance, but also at the direction in which the bird was travelling.   It may be near the tree, but if it is flying towards the mud house, then it is closer to home than another bird which is actually flying towards the tree?

What is clear (to the experienced worksheet user) is that the textbook intends for us to recognize the thatched-roof house as the “home” and is asking which bird is closer to that structure.  The “right” bird is aiming for that roof with a bright expression.  The “wrong” bird” looks lost and far away.  At least these are the clues that must have indicated to me which bird we were expected to circle.  I did not take into account the depth in the drawing nor ask where the bird made its home.  Only because our answers differed did I examine my thoughts at all – had she circled the lavender bird, I suppose we would have forged ahead to Tick (✓) the Cat Farther from the Tree.

Since I asked why, rather than moving to “correct” her, I learned something about perspective – in drawing and in our relationship with nature.

Tick the Cat Farther from the Tree

Tick the Cat Farther from the Tree

Images from Math-Magic Class 1 NCERT Textbook, page 6. Accessed online.

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.

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.

Listening and Learning from Birth

Listening and Learning from Birth

Foundations of natural learning begin at birth or even before. I am not talking about making the womb a classroom and reciting lessons for the benefit of the baby. Just as we feel that baby listens to everything going on, when we listen to baby we develop communication skills- both ours and baby’s. Many parents talk to baby during pregnancy. Mothers speak of tuning in closely to baby during labour and birth.

After birth, everyone tunes in. Long lost songs fill the air. What about these calls and responses from early days and years has to do with learning?

When we listen to children we model listening. It sounds obvious yet so often we see parents “telling” children to listen but not themselves listening. Children learn to listen by being listened to.

Listening to Infants

Adults can eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom without ever speaking to anyone. Not so for infants who need someone to feed them, hold them, breathe near them. And change them or better yet take them to relieve themselves. While most of the world still practices diaper-free hygiene and learns to listen to babies signal for this need just like all other needs, the rapid mass conversion to diapers is leading many to forget that babies actually do communicate hygiene needs from infancy. Fortunately many people are reviving this lost language and practicing what in the first world is known as “Elimination Communication.”

Elimination Communication

Compare a diaper to a curriculum: the lighter it is the more scope for the child to communicate. Disposable diapers or heavy plastic-covered cloth diapers, promoted for “not leaking” stand as a barrier to communication, like a rigid curriculum. To consider a diaper successful if it passes the “leak-proof” test is like a child considered successful based on passing an exam. And the more “leak-proof” is the diaper one uses, the longer it takes for the child to learn to go to potty on his or her own. In fact, babies are born with this awareness; constant use of the diaper makes them tune out and have to unlearn diaper-use and “learn” or “train” to recognize their own elimination needs again later.

Babies who are listened to, with respect to hygiene or any other aspect of living, will develop trust and communication skills more readily.

Just as diaper free hygiene helps a child stay in tune with her or his body, so many other aspects of natural family living such as natural birth, breastfeeding, unrushed transition to solid foods, sleep-sharing and respect for the body’s immune system help to draw an arc of holistic learning.

Precious Preliterate Years

When school started at 5 or 6 years of age and playschool was just that, then one left the early years free for learning that was more or less self-paced and self-directed. As it was natural to learn to walk and talk without instruction or monitoring, children had the opportunity to be exposed to letter, number, color, shape and other “pre-school” concepts as they occur in the surroundings without subjecting them to lessons and reviews and gold stars. Mixed age groups are more conducive for exploring social skills such as helping and taking turns that pre-schools claim to develop. Moreover, it is in these precious pre-literate, pre-numerate years that we experience the world as a whole, not squeezed into words, divided into parts and counted, compared, compiled. Why cut them short? Why not leave these years free for children to learn vital skills like eating and sleeping, at their own pace and with fewer demands on their time?

Leaving the early childhood years free of school schedules not only frees their minds from the impact of an external curriculum, but frees their time to learn life skills that may otherwise be shortchanged.

Freedom from Preconceived Notions

As deserving of our respect is the freedom the untutored mind has to explore and create knowledge as if they are the first to do so – as if our language, numbers, color schemes did not even exist.

Why do we make efforts to teach little kids to identify red, yellow and blue? Primary for whom? for what? In Telugu it is not easy to distinguish pink, orange and red, because all are called red. In fact we can’t even say “red” but have to say “redlike.” There are on the other hand very specific colours named “eggplant,” “peacock’s neck” or “parrot” and heaven help you if you call these violet or blue or green (esp if you are in the matching centre!) Some years ago I participated in an experiment for a study on “categorization of color*” and joined a listserv called colorcat that was dedicated to this research.

So even if we know that by age 5 or 6 or 7 children will have to accept the colours in standard crayon boxes why not leave the years before that free for them to perceive light and color in various ways without us dictating names for these things. I say the same for letters and numbers. Treasure those precious pre-literate and pre-numerical years without rushing to count, classify, compile and categorize. Though the languages* of infancy and early childhood may not survive for long, the opportunity to discover and develop and discard concepts in those years, the sense of being a principal investigator rather than passive recipient of concepts others have tried and found true, can serve one throughout life. Let us stand on our feet before we stand on the shoulders of giants. (*Wade Davis on endangered cultures gives us a glimpse of what values might survive along with non-dominant languages and concepts.)

Our daughter shared some memorable observations around age 2 about the number 0 and about white as a color. Yes, she currently uses our decimal number system and no longer objects to seeing colors the way we do. But we also got a glimpse of the questions our prevailing system raised for her and thought momentarily about what it would be like to see it her way. Alas, that moment may no longer be with us but the chance she had to protest the way zero was valued or the role of the white crayon is something that kindled in us respect for her imagination and analysis