Quidditch as Self-Directed Sports Education

April 30, 2020

My daughter, who currently goes by the name Hermione Granger, has brought Harry Potter fandom to a fever pitch in our house. While reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to her, I was struck by how foreign many of the underlying concepts of quidditch at Hogwarts felt to me. If you haven’t engaged with Potter before, quidditch is the only team sport available at wizard boarding school, and it seems to combine rugby with soccer, and a little hide-and-seek, all the while played on broomsticks.

The actual rules of the game aren’t what struck me as most odd, though; instead it was the way quidditch as an extra-curricular activity was structured by the administration at Hogwarts. I’d love to know how much of this is standard European behavior or maybe how much is J.K. Rowling’s fantasy. In any case, if you compare it to the standard Friday Night Lights-style artifice around American high school football or any other team sport, from little league on, you’ll notice one key absence: adult intervention. There are almost no teachers, and absolutely no parents, involved in quidditch.

There’s simply Madame Hooch, the impartial quidditch referee and one-time broomstick lesson instructor. The fact that Madame Hooch collects a paycheck at all is pretty mind-boggling, unless we imagine that she’s also working in the Hogwarts registrars office during the other 99% of her time. Apart from the referee, every other position of authority is granted to a student.

The team captains, though selected by a teacher, are students themselves. There is no coach in quidditch- the team captain runs the try-outs, selects the team members, and schedules and runs the practices. The captain is responsible for creating the plays and strategies for each upcoming match. We can imagine a character like Oliver Wood sitting in his dorm watching 35mm projections of Slytherin practices and scrawling into a folio with an energetic feather.

Even the announcer at the quidditch games is a student, only ever interrupted by Professor McGonagall when he succumbs to bouts of cursing, and hardly even then. The students play an entire tournament and not once does a single parent show up with a camcorder and a pizza party.

In Prisoner of Azkaban, it takes a serial murderer camped directly outside of Hogwarts for months to provoke the school into providing any adult supervision (for a game played fifty feet above the ground, flying on broomsticks). It comes in the form of one-dimensional Madame Hooch, who sits court-side and sleeps her way through the practices.

Compare that to a typical American extra-curricular, where it is an adult coach who builds the team, schedules the practices, assigns positions, plans the plays, and so on. Drive by a community park on a Thursday evening and you’ll see more adults than kids, camped out with umbrellas, lawn chairs, and coolers of Capri-Suns. The coach is typically joined by more than one assistant coach, and as a rule there’s at least one irate parent who’s job apparently is coaching (yelling) from the sidelines.

So what keeps Harry Potter showing up to Quidditch practice six nights a week, if not adult intervention? How on earth does the entire structure not fall apart, with the kids spending their evenings on the wizarding version of TikTok or up in their rooms playing with their gobstones? Apparently it’s all those things we typically want our kids to learn: love of the game, high personal standards, camaraderie, and self-motivation.

It’s easy to be nostalgic for The Sandlot-era sports, and sure Harry Potter is fiction, but the idea the children are given some autonomy, that they’re forced to deal with conflict resolution on their own terms, is not new. This is the basis of self-directed education: kids flourish when given freedom, autonomy, and responsibility. If you create a culture where kids are constantly told what to do- all you’re teaching them is how to wait to be told what to do. On the other hand, if left to their own devices, they’ll find reasons- internal motivation- to push themselves. Some will even step up to become leaders.

On Watching Our Daughter Teach Herself to Read

April 18, 2020

One of the hardest mental hurdles in self-directed education is the idea that you don’t sit down with the purpose of teaching your kids to read– not unless they explicitly ask for it. You don’t require daily reading lessons, and you never ask the question, “Is my child reading at grade level yet?”

Of course we’ve hinted at the value of reading (“This game would be even more fun for you if you could read what the characters are saying”) but never forced it. We bought practice reading books with Disney princesses, unicorns, and dragons, and we even have a large copy of Teach Your Child To Read In 100 Easy Lessons that’s been dog-eared at lesson 27 for a few years now.

Over that past year or so our six-year-old had developed the narrative that reading is just too hard, even though she was picking it up quite easily all things considered. Because it wasn’t instantaneous, it wasn’t fun. Of course our overwhelming urge as parents is to keep pushing it, knowing it will be fun once you can do it. But that “grit” mentality- the ability to push through something hard knowing it will be worth it in the end- is something that has to be experienced in order to be learned. And that’s hard, because the common culture is to push your kids through something hard, forcing them through hoping they’ll learn the lesson in the end (“See aren’t you glad you stuck it out?”).

Self-directed education takes the opposite approach. Our daughter will learn to read when she wants to learn to read. When she sees enough value in it that it becomes important to her. For her own reasons.

In life, at the end of the day, no one is going to push you. No one is going to force you through college or motivate you to become an outstanding employee and earn that promotion. No one is going to will you into writing that book you’ve always put off or starting that business of your dreams. Internal motivation, much like reading, is a foundational skill that, once developed, opens every other door behind it.

So we stopped suggesting (or nagging) that she learn to read, and yet we continued to read aloud to her on a daily basis. It’s actually a delicate dance- we never stopped enjoying the magic of books, but we never forced her to read to get her enjoyment from them either. The reading level of these books has grown, from C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl, to the inter-generational conflict and time-traveling conundrums of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I really thought we’d step beyond the reach of her six-year-old mind, but she comprehended, slowly and surely, asking a lot of questions along the way.

The hardest part is to watch other kids in traditional schooling start to tackle reading lessons, phonics flash cards, and Dick and Jane. You know your child is certainly capable, but for whatever reason, she simply doesn’t want to try to read on her own. You can start to feel like a failure as a parent, because we’ve all been trained to treat our children’s progress like a race, a competition. If our children are falling behind academically, it means there’s a mistake somewhere along the line, a problem to be fixed, at least according to the popular mindset.

It’s hard to stand firm and wait it out. It’s hard to trust in our children that they’ll naturally want to do the right thing. And I could trot out the research and statistics on natural learning ages, but none of that means anything when you’re trying not to feel disappointed in your child for not being a savant at age five.

But then one day everything changed, like we hoped it would. Like we knew it would. She started seeing the signal within the noise of black squiggles on a white page. She was pointing to the words, sounding them out on her own. She picked up the Disney princess primary readers, stumbling her way through sentences. She did it on her own, with no one pushing her, and she got to own it- the pride, the success, all her own. She asked questions and we answered, but otherwise she was showing us how to read, not the other way around.

So I understand that other philosophy, the one that says we should always be pushing our kids, that if it were up to them they wouldn’t do anything but sit and play Minecraft all day. I can certainly relate to that fear. But that’s actually a problem that doesn’t solve itself as you grow up. I still have to convince myself to spend a few hours writing every week instead of watching Netflix or scrolling through Instagram. I still have to fight every day to turn on my internal motivation to accomplish my personal and professional goals.

So of course we don’t let our kids watch television all day. I see television and iPads like sugar: inherently addictive regardless of age. We all work to limit the influence. So sure take away the television for most of the day, but also take away the adult supervision, the schedules, the lesson plans, and the micromanagement. Allow your kids to truly entertain themselves- give your kids the ultimate freedom to grow and it’s amazing the lessons they can teach themselves.

The alternative is to teach them that motivation is someone else’s job, that all they need to do is sit around and wait for the grown-ups to tell them what to do.

Solving Math Problems with Math Problems

August 24, 2018

To a man with a hammer, everything is a nail. To a math professor who sees the need for more female math students, everything is a math problem.

The context of her article- there are not enough females in STEM- and the core of her argument- that this comes from an institutional lack of confidence in female abilities in STEM- are going to be growing increasingly debatable in the future, but they aren’t necessarily bad causes to get behind. Advocating for more equal access to education is an important cause.

The fundamental issue is her complete misunderstanding of what makes a student love a subject, what makes a human intrinsically motivated to learn.

All learning isn’t — and shouldn’t be — “fun.” Mastering the fundamentals is why we have children practice scales and chords when they’re learning to play a musical instrument, instead of just playing air guitar. 

Something tells me that the author either doesn’t play a musical instrument, or at least doesn’t enjoy it. As a kid I played the trumpet in school band. I didn’t particularly enjoy it. I didn’t practice scales and I never sounded that great. I haven’t touched a trumpet since. 

That pattern could be repeated for any subject in school, from high school Spanish to whatever mitosis is. We did the drills because we were told to, because we needed to get through, then we we dropped it.

On the other hand, I picked up the guitar after high school, without the help of a credentialed teacher (oh my!). I sucked at it for a long time. And before you argue that the guitar is inherently “cooler” than the trumpet, just google Chet Baker- the honest-to-goodness coolest musician ever. Regardless, at a certain point, you realize that if you want your fingers to move like Clapton, you’ll need to work on your scales. And you do it.

The same goes for all skills that actually matter in life. We learn them when we need to learn them. It doesn’t really work that well the other way around, or else we’d all be bilingual literary geniuses with perfectly balanced bank accounts.

The root of her argument- that students need more self-belief when things get hard- is definitely a problem in our current education system. Something tells me that mandatory math drills aren’t quite the open door to confidence she makes them out to be. Drills are a great tool, but only after you have buy-in from the student. 

We could force every kid to practice scales and chords on the guitar every day in school. How many of them are going to really going to play with the passion and prowess like Jimi Hendrix at the end of it? How many will hate it more and forget it sooner?

Link to Article: Make Your Daughter Practice Math. She’ll Thank You Later.