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The concept of "deep learning" is very big these days in critiques of our educational system. Some argue (and I for one agree) that our voluminous public school state-mandated curriculum requirements are in fact too broad, and don’t give students the opportunity to go in depth into particular areas of interest. The argument continues that immersing oneself in the details of a particular area of great interest inspires a person to "learn how to learn". Outside the context of something really interesting to sink ones teeth into, learning to research a topic in a library or on the Internet can be a dry and boring exercise, and inhibit or retard the development of a very critical skill.

Anyway... when our son Eric was four or five, we bought him a VHS cassette of the movie "The Wizard of Oz", starring Judy Garland, and featuring Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, Margaret Hamilton, and the rest of the stellar cast. As anticipated, Eric was quietly glued to the screen the first time through watching this cinema classic. What we had not anticipated, was that he would want to watch the movie over and over again. I’m tempted to say a hundred times (though I tend to exaggerate), but definitely many, many times.

It is certainly a timeless and metaphorically powerful story. Dorothy, the naive but determined young woman, separated from her family and her entire world by a cataclysmic storm, journeys and survives various ordeals to find her way home. Along the way she befriends and allies with others seeking that missing part of them that would make them complete. They each are powerful archetypes.

* The resourceful and perceptive scarecrow, who is stigmatized because he has no actual brain

* The tinman, so kind and gentle, yet with a hole in his chest where the heart should be

* The cowardly lion, who unlike the prior two is pretty cowardly, but rises above his fear to help Dorothy

* Finally the seemingly awesome wizard that in reality is only the old man behind the curtain (from my feminist slant, a profound critique of patriarchy)

Then there are all the horrendous cataclysms that are still burned in my brain from my own youth watching this movie. I recall it was shown once a year when I was a kid, just often enough to rekindle the terror of the snaking tornado, Elmira Gultch on her bicycle turning into the witch, later the witch’s purple smoke entrance to Munchkin-land and final "meltdown", and then those god-awful flying monkeys. I still today have a phobia of large flying insects and bats.

This is a story well beyond the narrative scope and metaphorical punch of talking choo-choo trains or purple dinosaurs, and our son Eric digested every bit of it. And I must say, the many times I sat with him and watched it, I never tired of its iconic scenes and those classic lines, including...

* "Follow the yellow brick road"

* "...and your little dog too"

* "Toto too"

* "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain"

* "What a world... what a world... where a little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness"

* "There’s no place like home"

Without having been introduced to the concept yet, what I believe I was witnessing there in front of the VCR and TV set was a kid’s "deep learning". Taking all the necessary time to process every profound bit of this narrative masterpiece. Finding something of ones own limitations and longings in each of the compelling characters. Watching it over and over as long as there was something more to be gleaned.

Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders of the Sudbury Valley School, and an advocate for greater youth agency, argues that starting at about age four, kids are able to start taking responsibility for their actions and charting their own course, including the course of their own learning. Thus the school he and others founded has an enriched learning environment but no curriculum other than what the students (ages 5 to 19) decide for themselves.

But our son Eric would not have the opportunity for that sort of school experience. Instead he attended schools where there was a very extensive external curriculum, which many progressive educators argue is so broad that it makes it difficult or even impossible to do any learning in depth. Eric found this approach to education, in his own words, "Boring and pointless". What he wanted to do is to dig deep into something compelling (to him) and find the profound and possibly universal truth there that might be applicable to all aspects of life, to honor an inner compass rather than rely on others’ sense of direction.

Eric would later find that "deep learning" experience, on the Internet, outside of school, plunging into the world of designing, inhabiting and facilitating multi-player, on-line role-playing games. Collaborating with friends (some he knew in the "real world" and others he knew only through the role-playing world) to create a virtual fantasy world with its own context of history and character narratives.

So back to the subject of those movies you can see over and over again. Part of it, the "deep learning" part, is getting some new insight from each viewing, but another part I have to admit, is just relaxing and enjoying the beauty of the familiar, the memorized scene beautifully wrought, the compelling characters in action and the satisfying ending which confirms things that are good about life and the human condition.

What did this movie mean to Eric’s development? Maybe I should ask him that question directly. Maybe he has a specific thought on that. My thought is that in the characters particularly of the scarecrow and the tinman were two models of male-type people that Eric could (and maybe did) emulate – resourceful and gentle, honest and humble, not the least bit macho or ego involved. Entities learning to be comfortable with who they were, whether stuffed with straw or encased in metal, and learning to make a difference by assisting others. Maybe also it whet his appetite for fantasy and the stories one could weave in a fanciful world of ones own creation.

There would be other movies along the way that would play a similar role in our kids’ developmental process, some more unlikely than the consensus cinematic classic "The Wizard of Oz". Two that jump out are "Short Circuit II", the sequel actually of the story of the sentient robot "Johnny Five", and "Ever After", a feminist re-visioning of the Cinderella story. Not classics maybe in most people’s book, but full of compelling characters, great scenes and classic lines themselves... diamonds in the rough.

Originally posted to leftyparent on Sun Mar 22, 2009 at 09:05 AM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

    •  Well done! (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dar Nirron, BYw, dakinishir

      Thank you for a wonderful essay and fine insights.

      A very worthy Rescue, mercifully in time time for a rec.

      It would be a great improvement to our ed system if childrens' dominant interests could be directed and focused.

      Too often kids don't see a particular subject's importance to them.  If their interests were considered, and the presentation altered to appeal to the child's interests, we might get a lot more grads, and post grads, IMO.  Same subject, presented in a different context, and the kids won't be bored.  A lot of drop outs are very intelligent kids, bored senseless by a school system that has no time for their individual interests, and few resources to pursue alternatives.

      Another thing public ed should be doing is teaching modern life survival strategies.  Checking accounts, budgeting, credit management, etc.  Real life issues.  I don't know if home ec  is still about cooking & sewing, but if it is, it's all wrong.  Kids should be learning how to cope in the world they will be thrust into today.  Cooking and sewing, tho useful, are now arts & crafts subjects, unless the child has an aptitude and interest in a career in those fields.  Managing personal finance is crucial.  I would keep Shop, for boys and girls, tho.  It's useful to know how to build and maintain things, unless the child has no interest in such things.

      Thanks again.  Hopefully the Education debate will be fruitful and the children will benefit.

      •  Let me put in a plug for cooking, or rather (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Dar Nirron, BYw

        nutrition via cooking.  Cooking is not an "arts and crafts subject" if it teaches kids the basics of how to feed themselves in a nutritious way.  Having said this, let me add that there was no class I hated more than home ec. when I was growing up.  But if it still exists (and I'm not sure it does in most places), I would hope that learning about cooking and nutrition would be a part of those "modern life survival strategies" it was teaching.

        Nothing amuses me more than the easy manner with which everybody settles the abundance of those who have a great deal less than themselves. --Jane Austen

        by feeny on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 04:25:25 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  I agree... (0+ / 0-)

        that learning should be for the most part be based on interest.  And I agree that the universal math should be practical budgeting.  The kids with a real interest in abstract math could have a whole special program to dive into all the wonderful arcane aspects of it.

        Cooper Zale Los Angeles

        by leftyparent on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 06:24:27 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Oh eeh oh, YOOOOO um.... (10+ / 0-)

    or however that goes.

    I like the notion of re-visiting something as a means to extracting everything from it.

    I recall as a child, Pre-Internet, perusing the World Book Encyclopedias at the school library. I loved them because each article would reference another article and I would quickly flip to THAT article to learn more about the source, and back, and back. I recall being frustrated at school when the history text book would say something like "and then in 1969 the first man landed on the moon...and then a couple years later Nixon got elected! "WAIT STOP! MOON LANDING!!! Screw Nixon, tell me more about the Moon Landing!!!"

    Come sail your ships around me. And burn your bridges down.

    by Muskegon Critic on Sun Mar 22, 2009 at 09:21:07 AM PDT

  •  not ET? n/t (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    x, sberel, miss SPED

    Justice Stevens is 88 years old. Justice Stevens is 88 years old. Justice Stevens is 88 years old...and I am searching for a new profile quote. :-)

    by sunspark says on Sun Mar 22, 2009 at 12:32:32 PM PDT

    •  ET was a very cool movie... (5+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      x, sberel, CA Nana, BYw, miss SPED

      but somehow it has not had the same staying power with my kids (and us) "Wizard of Oz" and "Short Circuit II" did, and "Ever After" continues to have.  I think SC2 really had the compelling leads, Benjamin (human) and Johnny Five (robot) and the theme of fighting for and achieving recognition, which is a big one with youth.  "Ever After" has a feminits and progressive political consciousness woven discretely thru it which appeals particularly to my whole family.  The kind of fable two feminist parents love their daughter to see.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Sun Mar 22, 2009 at 01:07:06 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  There are a lot of schools that operate under (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Maudlin, x, sberel, Cassandra Waites, miss SPED

    these principles, Waldorf schools to a great degree, even Montessori.

    by the way, I would not at all say that learning to research a topic in a library is a dry or boring exercise that can inhibit or retard the development of critical skills. Take your child to a research library with original manuscripts or rare books, and the like. You'll find some amazing stuff in the archives. At any age, there are a variety of projects you can do.

    Look at these people! They suck each other! They eat each other's saliva and dirt! -- Tsonga people of southern Africa on Europeans kissing.

    by upstate NY on Sun Mar 22, 2009 at 09:07:13 PM PDT

    •  But you have to set guidelines (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Dar Nirron, miss SPED

      When I student taught, my students had to do research for the Chicago Metro History Fair. The librarian went to a great deal of time and trouble to pick out books for the students to use; they all ignored the books and ran straight for the computers. Ever since, I've required students to use at least three different types of source, one of which must be nonreference print books.

      "The great lie of democracy, its essential paradox, is that democracy is first to be sacrificed when its security is at risk." --Ian McDonald

      by Geenius at Wrok on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 04:06:49 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  I fear that requiring what and how... (0+ / 0-)

        can turn a lot of students off to learning for its own sake.  It was certainly true with our son Eric.

        Cooper Zale Los Angeles

        by leftyparent on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 06:28:57 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Depends on the level of student (0+ / 0-)

          If it's a young student, then yes maybe. But older students need to learn also about research skills. They can't get everything from secondary sources which have already processed and filtered the information they need. One might say that they aren't truly learning anything if they're only recourse is to computers.

          That's why I suggested archives. Because if you want to know something about, say, American history, you find what's in your local archive, and you will be amazed at the information that comes from personal letters and personal effects.

          Look at these people! They suck each other! They eat each other's saliva and dirt! -- Tsonga people of southern Africa on Europeans kissing.

          by upstate NY on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 06:38:17 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Good point... (0+ / 0-)

      What I meant to say is that learning a skill without a compelling reason to use it can be very dry.  Original texts, without an internally motivated interest in the area they illuminate, can be very dry as well.

      Cooper Zale Los Angeles

      by leftyparent on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 06:27:28 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  it depends, deep learning? (0+ / 0-)

    College  bound students do special projects and senior theses.
    Non college bound have workbooks and paced-calendar scripted curriculum.

  •  Your diary suggests the value of repetition, (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Dar Nirron, Dichro Gal, dakinishir

    which many children (possibly all, but I don't know) seem to thrive on.  My son reads the same books over and over again.  Before he could read he asked us to read the same books over and over again to him.  We did.  Possibly as a result of all this repetition, he has a wonderful memory and vocabulary.  He seemed, as he was growing up, to be absorbing the very sentence structures and patterns of language and narrative into his developing mind.  Yes, absolutely, it was a form of comfort too, but how wonderful to find comfort in complex and beautiful language, images and ideas.  That alone has the potential to shape the developing mind in productive ways--setting a pattern of seeking comfort in art and literature and language, rather than in junk food (for example).

    Nothing amuses me more than the easy manner with which everybody settles the abundance of those who have a great deal less than themselves. --Jane Austen

    by feeny on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 04:21:34 AM PDT

  •  Unschooling, as my family practiced it, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BYw, dakinishir

    went much as this admirable essay describes.

    When #1 son was about 9 years old, his homeschooled buddies were getting into a role-playing card game called "Magic, the Gathering."  He wanted in.  Unfortunately, #1 had a lot of trouble with reading--really had struggled with it.  But he wanted to play Magic.  We sat together and read the cards.  He read the cards, asking for my help.  And then he started playing with his friend David, a real shark at the game.  (Both of David's parents are lawyers; it was probably genetic!)

    In about 3 weeks, #1 went from about a 2nd grade reading level to about a 5th grade reading level.  And his ability to read zoomed ahead at a breakneck speed.

    On the History Channel, a program about Sun Tzu and his book "The Art of War" aired.  #1 watched this, and said, "That book will help me play Magic better."  He went to the library and requested it, much to the surprise of the librarians, since this is a book that most children, at age 9, would have no interest in.  He read "The Art of War," and his ability to beat the other kids at the game soared--including the card shark, David.

    At the store that sold Magic cards, they also sold Dungeons and Dragons books.  He bought the D&D "Player's Handbook," and started hanging out with other D&D players; he was about 11 years old at that time.  He began to read more and more D&D stuff, and learned how to research and how to write campaigns, and soon was leading D&D campaigns with his homeschooling friends.  At age 14, he took a class run by a local independent theatre group about how to write plays.  He took a D&D character sheet to the instructor, who was thrilled to have this resource she had never seen before on how to develop a character's backstory.

    From a kid who would have felt like a failure in school, because he was a late reader, #1 now reads Shakespeare plays for run.  He thinks big ideas.

    All because he had the freedom to learn at his own pace, and learn what he wanted to know, when he wanted to know it.

    To say my fate is not tied to your fate is like saying, "Your end of the boat is sinking."--Hugh Downs

    by Dar Nirron on Mon Mar 23, 2009 at 05:29:28 AM PDT

  •  schools . . . (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    do not use children's time efficiently.  I don't have the reference offhand but there are estimates that 80% of what we know we learned outside of school.  

    I understand the need for a strong free educational system as a matter of public policy, but for individual children, I believe the optimum is to preserve as much individual liberty and free time for our children as possible.  This can mean unschooling like we did, or "guerilla learning" as described by Grace Lewellyn in her book for families where the kids do attend school, in which she describes ways to incorporate unschooling philosophy into the family practices.

    Everyone who values their children's holistic development would benefit from reading Lewellyn's The Teenage Liberation Handbook (even if your kids are small) and her Guerilla Learning handbook.  

    As for our family, I had the joy of watching my children grow up doing nothing but "deep learning" as they followed their own choices.  My daughter pursued literature, music, and drama (and will produce her first puppet play during the Philly Fringe Festival in Sept) while my seemingly "average" son has become unusually gifted in technological expertise and is running his own business now (with no high school diploma and no formal educational credentials from anyone).

  •  asdf (0+ / 0-)

    You might find Bruno Bettleheim's "Uses of Enchantment" and any of Maria Von Franz books on the archetypes found in fairy tales and fables to be interesting reading.  

    As to the educational side -- this immediately reminded me of a diary I read the other day on people who like ambiguity and those who like certainty.  There are children like Eric who would thrive in an environment in which they directed their own learning.  But there are other children who desperately want a very structured learning environment.  

    I think we need school environments that nurture every learning style.  I also think that it is good for children to have experiences that aren't necessarily "fun" or "easy" but challenge them to think in other ways.  Unfortunately the demands of NCLB only favor those who like the certainty that there is a "correct" answer rather than favor those who want to find lots of different routes along the way.

  •  This stuff aint new (0+ / 0-)

    I went to a public school for grades 3-8 where there were no grades, no homework, no tests and we got daily creative writting assignments and other projects to complete if we wanted to. Otherwise we could spend our time doing other things, learning what we wanted to or goofing off.
    But goofing off is boring sitting in a classroom all day.
    The positives were that we did learn to think for ourselves, to be creative, and to be self-motivated learners. We had time to pursue our interests and help in doing so.
    Negatives were not inherent to the method, but were particular to the school. It is not a good idea to never correct grammar or punctuation or spelling. Kids should be pushed some if they show a strong interest or talent for a specific area, they dont always know what to work on next. Always make sure they can continue learning more.
    My cousin and I both showed talent for math in third grade. I completed pre-algebra on my own, having started with 3rd grade math to start the year. My school reacted by giving me no more math for five years. My cousin got special tutors from his school, and his parents, and went to math camps. He is a mathematician with a PhD. I answer the phones in a call center.  
    It also was hard when I got my first English paper back in high school, with 63 corrections, and was told that every correction over one would lose me a full letter grade from then on.
    On the other hand, I have had a pretty varied and interesting life. I had a role on Sex and the City, sang on a CD that the NY Times critic picked #4 for classical releases for the year, toured in a professional choir, owned a Leftist activist store for several years, got a US patent, presented an academic paper at the Symposium on the Psychology of War (having never taken a psychology course and not having a Bachelors), played a large role in designing a new park for my neighborhood, was a member of a crazy NYC artists collective...
    From my small Jr. High, 20 in each grade, we have authors with many books published, professional ballet dancers, professional artists and actors and singers...and even some people with PhD's from Georgetown.  
    For some a school like this is the only solution. We had one kid that the district sent us that they said "might be retarded" who could not read. After just a year he tested at the 98th percentile in both English and math. Then he decided not to go to the high school for gifted students, dropped out and became a mechanic. But I bet he is the best damned mechanic in town.
    The traditional schools that now fail all kids by avoiding challenging them, in order not to harm their self-esteem by letting them learn or achieve, are a disaster. At the very least kids have to be able to learn how people actually learn, at their own pace and with the ability to pursue their interests deeply. Even universities are intolerable for me with this lunacy of churning out papers and spending four frenetic months on a topic and then leaving it forever.
    If there is one thing the current dominant system does, it is to keep people from being able to think for themselves, or at all.

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