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Children can learn outside the classroom

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on July 5, 2012)

I’ve been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and was very taken with Isaacson’s portrayal of the Apple co-founder’s early life.

I was struck by the lengths Jobs’ adoptive parents went to encourage his natural curiosity and to provide him with better educational opportunities. When Steve veered off course and misbehaved, they saw that it was because he wasn’t being intellectually challenged. They didn’t stigmatize him for his pranks.

Most important, though, was the example set by Paul Jobs, Steve’s father. A talented machinist, he was a passionate weekend auto mechanic who repaired a steady stream of automobiles in his home garage and sold them on the side.

Early in Steve’s life, Paul Jobs set up a workbench in the garage that was to be Steve’s alone. Working side by side in that garage, Steve clearly absorbed from his father an attention to detail that carried through to the products he went on to create that have changed all of our lives.

In time, Steve took charge of his own learning, choosing to focus on electronics rather than cars. Initiative certainly wasn’t an issue. When he found he needed some parts he didn’t hesitate to call the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, Bill Hewlett, at his home to ask for them. That phone call later led to a job.

Isaacson’s account reinforces a point we often forget. Children aren’t just learning when they are in school, they are learning all the time. We may not all be fortunate enough to grow up in Silicon Valley, where many of the neighborhood fathers tinkered with electronics in their garages, but thanks to computers and the Internet, children do have access to many avenues for informal learning.

Several professors at Peabody College are using computers to make learning feel less rote. Doug Clark, for example, builds on children’s natural interest in games to find novel ways to teach science. Pratim Sengupta is developing a visual programming language that allows learners to model scientific ideas. Both seek to capitalize on children’s intuitive understanding.

Rogers Hall has been developing innovative ways to teach geometric ideas using large-scale outdoor projects and handheld devices. These same devices allow children to gather and analyze data about personal mobility, and even to make recommendations to city planners for changes like new bike lanes.

Professor Kevin Leander is exploring the ways that computing technologies, communications tools like texting, and social networks can be used to bridge learning experiences in and out of the classroom. Some of these technologies are changing the very definition of what we mean by literacy.

Parents make many sacrifices on behalf of their children’s educations. Even Steve Jobs’ parents moved to get him into a better school district. But school is only one feature of a child’s education. Informal learning through hands-on projects, parental modeling and support, and pursuit of personal creative ideas are just as important, and sometimes more so.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.