In primary school I very much enjoyed arithmetic. I distinctly remember rattling through activity books with names like “Starting Points” and “Fletcher”. One day, someone, possibly a teacher, alluded to a kind of mathematics that involved letters instead of numbers. It sounded very interesting, and I looked forward to “getting to” that. That was how it was, in school. You sort of learned what you were told to learn.
At the time it did not occur to me that I could just go and study algebra. In fairness I remember individual teachers in later years who gave me out-of-curriculum books to take home. But looking back on this I am left thinking that it is very easy for schools to hold children back, and even beat the enthusiasm out of them. I think the unschooling movement gets a lot of things right. Self-directed learning is more efficient because you are always studying what you are interested in.
Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, we find out what happens when you leave a big pile of tablet computers (loaded with Neal-Stephenson-Diamond-Age-esque software) in a village with no school.
We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.