A Thousand Rivers

Before there was Phonics or Whole Language, there was the "Alphabet method," sometimes called "syllabification," where students were taught the letters of the alphabet followed by rote memorization and then combination of simple two-letter syllables, like BA BE BI BO BU and AB EB IB OB UB. Combined with ample doses of the "Whipping" method, it was apparently highly effective. The New England Primer, widely used throughout the northeastern colonies through the end of the eighteenth century, followed a short list of these syllable combinations with illustrated verses designed to show each letter of the alphabet in use (“In ADAM’s fall, we sinned all,” or “The idle FOOL is whipped at school.”) and then went promptly on to full texts of prayers, hymns, dialogues between Christ, Youth, and the Devil, and thrillingly lurid illustrations of Protestant martyrs being burned at the stake. The alphabet method was used successfully to teach reading for hundreds of years; "The New Discovery of the Old Art of Teaching School," written in 1660 by Charles A. Hoole, refers to it as “the ancient way of teaching, which is most naturall.” Some phonics advocates have tried to claim this method as a phonics approach, since clearly there is an element of teaching the relationships between letters and sounds; at the same time immediate whole word recognition was involved in the short verses, prayers, and catechisms which children learned by heart from their hornbooks or primers. Explicit phonics as we know it today, which separates individual phonemes from their context in syllabic letter groupings, and which attempts to explicitly teach the many irregularities in English letter-sound correspondences, was not developed until the nineteenth century.
This observation was made by a team of Kenyan and U.S. women anthropologists who conducted a longitudinal study of rapid social change among Gikuyu women and children in the town of Ngecha, Kenya from 1968 to 1973. It is not meant to represent the views of all Gikuyu women, many of whom now share the attitudes about education and learning common throughout the "developed" world. None of these statements is meant to imply that all of these cultures, or every individual within each culture, has identical views of learning.  The phrasing is simply intended to convey that what is considered to be "common sense," i.e. obvious and self-evident, about children and learning, is by no means universal in all human societies. For citations for this and other descriptions of learning across cultures, please see the Sources listed at the end of the article.
The ethos of many indigenous cultures is intensely egalitarian, and any form of public boasting is seen as rude behavior. So, for example, for an Australian Aboriginal child "who is singled out and praised above the rest of the group….(s)uch praise is an embarrassment and may make the praised child feel as though he or she has let down the rest of the group. Consequently, this child lowers her or his performance to follow cultural mores." American children do this as well, because they often have a powerful instinct for egalitarian behavior toward friends, but it rarely occurs to adults to consider this as a possible reason for "underachievement." See "The Australian Aboriginal View of Giftedness, in Sources, below.
I'm speaking here of children who have reasonable access to safe housing, nutritious food, and parents who are employed at a living wage and are therefore able to provide books, digital media, trips to parks and gardens and museums and other resources to their children. The millions of children living in conditions of severe deprivation in the United States have more serious problems, but I would maintain that a living wage for their parents is the starting place for solving them, and we need to stop talking about education as though it were a substitute for economic justice.
In a tidy act of cultural appropriation, data-driven educators have begun to refer to all more flexible, experiential approaches to learning as products of "Romanticism," the European intellectual tradition typified by Rousseau and Pestalozzi, thus neatly attributing the real-world, time-tested pedagogical strategies of thousands of indigenous cultures around the world (of which they are presumably unaware) to a couple of European white guys. In so doing, they are able to subtly imply that these approaches to learning may be somewhat fanciful or unrealistic, unlike their own intellectually sound data-supported approach. The frequent failure of Europeans and Americans to successfully integrate more fluid ways of learning with a hierarchical, authoritarian, age-graded, standards-based understanding of education has even been taken as evidence that more fluid or learner-directed ways of learning are "urban legends." In other words, "We know how children learn - you don't" becomes "Our way of learning exists - yours doesn't."

What the modern world has forgotten about children
and learning.

photo by Wade Davis


by Carol Black 

The following statement somehow showed up on my Twitter feed the other day:

“Spontaneous reading happens for a few kids. The vast majority
(and all can benefit from) explicit instruction in phonics.” 

This 127-character edict issued, as it turned out, from a young woman who is the “author of the forthcoming book Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter” and a “journalist, consultant and speaker who helps people understand how we learn and how we can do it better.”

It got under my skin, and not just because I personally had proven in the first grade that it is possible to be bad at phonics even if you already know how to read. It was her tone; that tone of sublime assurance on the point, which, further tweets revealed, is derived from “research” and “data” which demonstrate it to be true.

Many such “scientific” pronouncements have emanated from the educational establishment over the last hundred years or so.  The fact that the proven truths of each generation are discovered by the next to be harmful folly never discourages the current crop of experts who are keen to impose their freshly-minted certainties on children. Their tone of cool authority carries a clear message to the rest of us: “We know how children learn.  You don’t.”

So they explain it to us.

The “scientific consensus” about phonics, generated by a panel convened by the Bush administration and used to justify billions of dollars in government contracts awarded to Bush supporters in the textbook and testing industries, has been widely accepted as fact through the years of “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” so if history is any guide, its days are numbered. Any day now there will be new research which proves that direct phonics instruction to very young children is harmful, that it bewilders and dismays them and makes them hate reading (we all know that’s often true, so science may well discover it) — and millions of new textbooks, tests, and teacher guides will have to be purchased at taxpayer expense from the Bushes’ old friends at McGraw-Hill.

The problems with this process are many, but the one that I’d like to highlight is this: the available “data” that drives it is not, as a matter of fact, the “science of how people learn.” It is the “science of what happens to people in schools.”

This is when it occurred to me: people today do not even know what children are actually like. They only know what children are like in schools.




Schools as we know them have existed for a very short time historically: they are in themselves a vast social experiment. A lot of data are in at this point. One in four Americans does not know the earth revolves around the sun. Half of Americans don’t know that antibiotics can’t cure a virus. 45% of American high school graduates don’t know that the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. These aren’t things that are difficult to know. If the hypothesis is that universal compulsory schooling is the best way to to create an informed and critically literate citizenry, then anyone looking at the data with a clear eye would have to concede that the results are, at best, mixed. At worst, they are catastrophic: a few strains of superbacteria may be about to prove that point for us.

How did you learn to use a computer? Did a friend help you? Did you read the manual? Did you just sit down and start playing around with it? Did you do a little bit of all of those things? Do you even remember? You just learned it, right?
On the other hand, virtually all white American settlers in the northeastern colonies at the time of the American Revolution could read, not because they had all been to school, and certainly not because they had all been tutored in phonics, which didn’t exist at the time. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, not exactly light reading, sold over 500,000 copies in its first year of publication, the equivalent of a book selling sixty million copies today. People learned to read in a variety of ways, some from small one-room schools, but many from their mothers, from tutors, traveling ministers, apprentice’s masters, relatives, neighbors, friends. They could read because, in a literate population, it is really not that difficult to transmit literacy from one person to the next. When people really want a skill, it goes viral. You couldn’t stop it if you tried.

In other words, they could read for all the same reasons that we can now use computers. We don’t know how to use computers because we learned it in school, but because we wanted to learn it and we were free to learn it in whatever way worked best for us. It is the saddest of ironies that many people now see the fluidity and effectiveness of this process as a characteristic of computers, rather than what it is, which is a characteristic of human beings.

In the modern world, unless you learn to read by age 4, you are no longer free to learn in this way. Now your learning process will be scientifically planned, controlled, monitored and measured by highly trained “experts” operating according to the best available “data.” If your learning style doesn’t fit this year’s theory, you will be humiliated, remediated, scrutinized, stigmatized, tested, and ultimately diagnosed and labelled as having a mild defect in your brain.

How did you learn to use a computer? Did a friend help you? Did you read the manual? Did you just sit down and start playing around with it? Did you do a little bit of all of those things? Do you even remember? You just learned it, right?




Wolves have litters of same-age puppies which the mother leaves in the care of another adult while she hunts; elk give birth to calves which are able to stand up and follow the herd within a matter of minutes. Primates, including human beings, have one offspring at a time which the mother carries with her while she seeks food or works, often sharing care with rich networks of relatives and friends.

All social mammals have evolved species-specific social structures and behaviors for learning and transmitting the skills they will need to survive as adults. Our own species evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to live in small mixed-age communities where children are embedded in adult activities, surrounded by older and younger children and grandparents, immersed in the natural world, free to move and play and exercise their bodies, and where they are able to observe, imitate and then participate in adult work as they become developmentally ready. In societies that still live according to this model, elegant indigenous pedagogies have developed over millennia that are so attuned to the natural development of children that complex and nuanced skills can be acquired in ways that appear almost effortless.

Any Gikuyu mother in Kenya knows that you wait to give a child a task until you see that she is ready for it.  Any Baiga father in the forests of India knows that if a child tries something and then backs away, you leave him alone, because he will be back to try again later. Any Yup’ik elder knows that young children learn better from story than lecture, from hands-on experience than direct instruction. Any Fore parent from Papua New Guinea knows that children sometimes learn best by emulating older children, not by being taught by adults. 

People all over the world know these things about children and learning, and interestingly, they are as workable for learning how to design software or conduct a scientific experiment or write an elegant essay as they are for learning to hunt caribou or identify medicinal plants in a rainforest.

But we don’t know them any more.
Collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.

Any wildlife biologist knows that an animal in a zoo will not develop normally if the environment is incompatible with the evolved social needs of its species. But we no longer know this about ourselves. We have radically altered our own evolved species behavior by segregating children artificially in same-age peer groups instead of mixed-age communities, by compelling them to be indoors and sedentary for most of the day, by asking them to learn from text-based artificial materials instead of contextualized real-world activities, by dictating arbitrary timetables for learning rather than following the unfolding of a child’s developmental readiness. Common sense should tell us that all of this will have complex and unpredictable results. In fact, it does. While some children seem able to function in this completely artificial environment, really significant numbers of them cannot. Around the world, every day, millions and millions and millions of normal bright healthy children are labelled as failures in ways that damage them for life. And increasingly, those who cannot adapt to the artificial environment of school are diagnosed as brain-disordered and drugged. 

It is in this context that we set out to research how human beings learn. But collecting data on human learning based on children’s behavior in school is like collecting data on killer whales based on their behavior at Sea World.




In 2010 a trio of researchers from the University of British Columbia published a paper that reverberated through the social sciences. Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, the authors of the paper, challenged the way the social sciences had for a century made broad generalizations about human nature and behavior based on research on a narrow cultural subset of humanity –– what they called the “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic” — or “WEIRD” — societies. After reviewing a comparative database from across the behavioral sciences, Henrich et al. found that these societies not only were not representative of humanity as a whole, they were by many measures at one extreme of the bell curve of human variation; in other words, members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. By many measures Americans were further out on the bell curve than Europeans; in other words, they were “outliers among outliers.” 

By many measures Americans were further out on the bell curve than Europeans; in other words, they were “outliers among outliers.”
Many of these outlying traits pertain to the type of education that we think of as “normal” in the United States. It turns out that Americans are at the far end of the spectrum in their preference for competition over cooperation; for self-promotion over humility; for analytical over holistic thinking; for individual rather than collective success; for direct rather than indirect communication; for hierarchical rather than egalitarian conceptions of status. So in school we urge our children to strive to be better than their friends and we praise them publicly if they succeed, where many other societies would consider this to be extremely bad manners. We focus on our children directly and tell them exactly what we want them to know, where in many other societies adults expect children to observe their elders closely and follow their example voluntarily. We control and direct and measure our children’s learning in excruciating detail, where many other societies assume children will learn at their own pace and don’t feel it necessary or appropriate to control their everyday activities and choices. In other words, what we take for granted as a “normal” learning environment is not at all normal to millions of people around the world. 

If Americans are outliers among outliers, then the subculture of American institutional schooling, which makes increasingly rigid demands on very young children and suppresses more and more of their natural energies and inclinations, is an outlier to that. Traits that would be valued in the larger American society –– energy, creativity, independence –– will get you into trouble in the classroom, and sadly, it turns out that some of our children just can’t follow us that far out on the bell curve. The human species is extremely malleable and variable, but not infinitely so, and what you see in individual children as our culture grows more and more extreme is that the underlying species nature re-emerges, sometimes disruptively. Like people who try to keep wolves as pets, we find that some of our children start to chew through their leashes. 

One day I watched a nine-year-old boy as he led a group of children scrambling over Vasquez Rocks, a great sandstone formation that slants up out of the California desert. He was one of those magnetic, electrical, radiant boys; kind to the younger ones, strong, quick, inquisitive, sharp as a tack, his eyes throwing sparks in the clear air. It was a joy just to watch him, I said to the friend standing beside me. She told me he had just been diagnosed with ADHD.

When you see children who do not learn well in school, they will often display characteristics that would be valued and admired if they lived in any number of traditional societies around the world. They are physically energetic; they are independent; they are sociable; they are funny. They like to do things with their hands. They crave real play, play that is exuberant, that tests their strength and skill and daring and endurance; they crave real work, work that is important, that is concrete, that makes a valued contribution. They dislike abstraction; they dislike being sedentary; they dislike authoritarian control. They like to focus on the things that interest them, that spark their curiosity, that drive them to tinker and explore. 

“Experts” in our WEIRD society tell us these children are learning disabled; they have poor impulse control; they lack organizational skills; they are oppositional. One in twenty, one in ten, one in seven of our precious bright-eyed children, we are told, have some kind of organic brain defect that disables them as learners.

But any Maori parent knows that you have to watch a child patiently, quietly, without interference, to learn whether he has the nature of the warrior or the priest. Our children come to us as seeking beings, Maori teachers tell us, with two rivers running through them — the celestial and the physical, the knowing and the not-yet-knowing. Their struggle is to integrate the two. Our role as adults is to support this process, not to shape it. It is not ours to control.



WadeDavis31 photo by Wade Davis



“The rainbows kind of wilt like flowers.” That’s what my daughter said as she stood at the top of a mountain one rainy, sunny day, watching the colors arcing and dissolving in the air. She was two and a half.

So I always knew this child had a gift for words. She loved to be read to, she made up stories and songs and poems and plays; she invented her own mythologies; she composed endless letters to her beloved granny.

But she did not read early.

She did not go to school, so this did not pose a problem for her or for anyone else. She was part of a group of kids whose sense of politeness dictated that they not make a big issue about reading or any other skill that one kid had and another kid lacked. If they were playing a game and needed to read something, or making up a play and wanted to write something, they would just find a kid or an adult who could do it.

A few times I tried, while reading her a story, to run my finger under the words as I read them, or to point out the sounds that certain letters make. Like most kids who don’t go to school, she was quick to recognize an adult with an agenda. “I don’t like it when you do that thing with your finger,” she said. So I stopped.

I began to notice that it was as though she was actually averse to focusing on the print on the page. She memorized whole books, whole poems, but she did it by sound, not sight. She played the piano but she didn’t like to look at the notes. When she drew, which she did constantly, she didn’t draw by looking at things and then copying what she saw. She drew from somewhere deep inside, her lines fluid, deft, intuitive.

Finally one day when she was about seven and a half years old, her beloved granny, my dear mother-in-law, who happened to be a school psychologist in the public school system, couldn’t take it any longer. Although she had tried not to interfere, she could no longer contain the scientific certainty of her advanced degrees and her forty years of professional experience and her steady access to the best available data; in real anguish she burst out:  “I just know that there is a certain cognitive window for a child to learn to read and if you miss that window you are going to have problems later on! And for Isabel that window occurred when she was about four years old!”

There was a long moment of silence.

“Granny,” I said, finally. “If you go to school and you can’t read when you’re seven you are going to be stigmatized and humiliated and made incredibly anxious in a way that is going to interfere with your ability to learn in the future. That’s not going to happen to Isabel.” 

Surprisingly, there was another moment of silence. She hadn’t thought of that before.

“Plus,” I continued, “Children’s stories are full of mean step-mothers and witches and man-eating dragons. I learned to read when I was four because I loved all those things. Isabel is terrified of them. When we’re reading The Mouse and the Motorcycle and the lady walks into the room with the vacuum cleaner, she wants us to read ahead and tell her if the little mouse gets away. She has no desire to be left alone with those stories. She wants a grown-up to read them to her.”

To my surprise, Granny’s face melted at this. It sort of wilted like a flower, in fact. Her voice got very soft. 

“Oh,” she said. “I was like that when I was little.”

Six months later Isabel was reading Harry Potter independently. She no longer wanted to wait for an adult to have time to read to her; she needed to know what happened next, dragons or no dragons. When she was fourteen she read War and Peace. When she was twenty she was the head writing tutor at her college.

How did this happen? We don’t really know. This is an important point. You don’t know. I don’t know. Nobody really knows. The cognitive processes which underlie literacy are complex beyond your wildest imagination; our scientific understanding of them is in its early infancy. But people whose kids don’t go to school are nodding their heads in recognition at my story, because among kids who don’t go to school, or who go to democratic or free schools, Isabel’s pattern of learning to read is common. It happens all the time. The fact that most literacy “researchers” and “experts,” not to mention school psychologists, don’t even realize that it is possible is something that should concern us all.
We are embarrassing ourselves in the eyes of future generations with our claims that we can identify reading skills and disabilities with blurry patches of color on a functional MRI image. The science is just not there yet. Not even close.

What should concern us even more is that these “experts” are claiming to know more about the cognitive processes of reading than they actually do, and policy that impacts millions of children –– that limits their horizons, that brands them as disabled, that drives them to frustration and despair –– is being based on their overweening claims. Philip Lieberman, a cognitive scientist who studies the evolutionary basis of the neural networks involved in language, refers to the current views which identify “brain centers” for language as a kind of “neo-phrenology” — an updated version of the 19th-century theory that you can identify types of intelligence by charting the lumps on a person’s skull. In other words, we are embarrassing ourselves in the eyes of future generations with our claims that we can identify reading skills and disabilities with blurry patches of color on a functional MRI image. The science is just not there yet. Not even close.

But any Maori mother knows that children do not learn in a straight upward line but in a stair-step pattern. They leap forward, then plateau for a while, then leap forward again. Their learning is an underground river, you can’t see it, can’t even feel it at times. Then suddenly they soar. You can’t control it; you can’t take credit for it. It’s theirs. You have to be there, providing warmth and stability, providing tools and resources, answering questions, telling stories, having meaningful adult conversations and doing meaningful adult work in their presence. But when they soar, it’s on their own wings. 


Maori educator Mereana Taki



Any Cree parent knows that you can tell when a child is ready for something because he will begin to ask questions about it. You can’t control the timing of this, and there is no reason to. We don’t know when the salmon and the geese will arrive every year, when the ice will melt and the rivers rise, when the huckleberries will bloom and set fruit, but they bloom and set fruit every year, and our children grow up. 

Even in WEIRD societies, everybody knows that there is a normal range of several months during which a child will say her first words or take her first steps. A child who walks at 10 months will not necessarily be more physically talented than a child who walks at 14 months, and pediatricians spend much of their day reassuring us of this and encouraging us not to compare our children to each other. There is no basis, scientific or otherwise, for assuming children will reach any major milestone at a uniform age, and those of us whose kids don’t go to school often joke about the fact that if we were to require all children to take their first steps at the same age, we would be a nation of people with walking disorders. 

But as a child moves through the life cycle, from first steps and first words to toilet training to losing baby teeth to riding a bicycle to reaching puberty, the normal range of variation does not decrease – it increases.  Dramatically. A completely normal healthy girl may reach puberty at nine or at fifteen, a normal range of several years. Reading compounds this variability with the enormous complexity of the cognitive, visual, auditory, emotional, physical, and social dimensions which must all be mature and working together in the growing child for fluent literacy to emerge. And yet we have created a multi-billion-dollar compulsory institution with its ancillary multi-billion dollar industries that all rest on the idea that children should reach this milestone at the same age. 

And that if they can’t, there will be hell to pay.

One day when my daughter was eight we had the feeling that she and her best friend Raphael were up to something, and we found them huddled together with a book, trying to figure out what it said. Like the kids in Sugata Mitra’s famous “Hole in the Wall” experiments, they were figuring it out together. When I entered the room they looked up like kids who were caught doing something illicit. This is another thing you learn about kids when they don’t go to school. They don’t want to be watched all the time. They don’t want to be scrutinized and measured. They often don’t even want to be praised or encouraged. They have a remarkable sense of dignity and autonomy, and they defend it fiercely. They want their learning to be their own. 

In pretty short order all the kids in their little group could read fluently. They learned from cereal boxes and street signs and Sesame Street, from computers and books and big sisters, from stories and songs and and plays and poems, from board games and video games and word games, from recipes and labels and assembly instructions, from letters to grannies, from their parents, from each other. Very few people are going to make it through childhood in America without somebody mentioning at some point that the letter “B” makes the “buh” sound (except when it doesn’t), so if you consider that phonics instruction, then fine. The idea that there is a relationship between letters and sounds is ubiquitous in the culture, and kids are going to encounter the proposition somewhere along the way that M is for Monkey and S is for Snake. Some of the kids asked adults for help in learning to read; some didn’t. Some of the kids used phonics workbooks or computer programs, or they picked up workbooks for a while and then got bored and set them aside. Many never bothered.

The point is that they learned to read the way we all learned to use computers; flexibly, idiosyncratically, each in whatever way and at whatever time and pace worked best for him. A phonics program is simply a tool to use or not, as you are so inclined, like a computer manual; some people may use it systematically, some sporadically, some never.Crucially, observers note that the age of onset of reading is not predictive of ultimate intellectual aptitude or achievement; it is not uncommon for late readers to have high levels of intellectual ability and even literary interest and talent.

When kids are allowed to begin reading when they are interested and ready, numerous anecdotal reports indicate something like a flattened bell curve distribution that runs from about age four or five to age ten or eleven, with the peak of the bell spread out widely through the 5-6-7-8-9 range (although psychologist Peter Gray reports that the cultural practice of texting may be shifting the average earlier.) The children who begin reading later usually learn rapidly, going from “behind” their putative “grade level” to “ahead” of it within the space of a few months. Virtually all are reading at or above “grade level” by their teen years.

Why do some children read later than others? Again, we don’t know. But many late readers have high levels of interest and ability in the mechanical, musical, spatial, mathematical, or digital realms. Many are gifted in the performing arts or athletics. Some simply have a different learning strategy; one that absorbs, considers, consolidates, integrates, and then suddenly blossoms fully formed.  As Isabel said when she was nine or ten, “I like to wait until I already know a thing, and then I like to learn it.”

But crucially, observers note that the age of onset of reading is not predictive of ultimate intellectual aptitude or achievement; it is not uncommon for late readers to have high levels of intellectual ability and even literary interest and talent. Like Einstein who did not speak until age three, some children simply develop their skills in a different order.

In other words, it’s just not a big deal.

Unless you make it a big deal. If you push a child to read when he is not ready, you can do a lot of damage very fast. When adults become anxious about a child’s development, that anxiety is transmitted instantaneously; another thing you discover when your kids don’t go to school is that you can’t fool a six-year-old. They see right through you. So what adults may like to call “encouragement” or “support,” kids will often see as “manipulation” or “pressure,” and they resist it. Pay attention to the actual child in front of you as she responds to that “fun” educational activity you planned, and you will quickly learn to see when this is happening. 

Children’s resistance takes many forms; inattention, irritability, disruption, withdrawal, restlessness, forgetting; in fact, all of the “symptoms” of ADHD are the behaviors of a child who is actively or passively resisting adult control. Once you start to generate this resistance to learning, if you don’t back away quickly, it can solidify into something very disabling.

If you press a child hard to do something when she is really developmentally unable to do it — I made that mistake more than once, and our schools make it every day — the psychological shutdown that occurs is catastrophic. Simply catastrophic. Let me repeat this: when you push a child to do something she simply developmentally can not do, you create a profound belief that (a) I hate this; (b) I can’t do this; (c) I will never be able to do this, and (d) There’s something wrong with me.

All, I should point out, profoundly disabling beliefs.

Interestingly, the Finnish school system, which has some of the highest reading scores in the world, does not begin direct instruction in reading until age seven, closer to the peak of a natural unforced bell curve than the American system, which keeps pushing instruction ever earlier. A study in New Zealand compared Waldorf schools, which begin reading instruction at age seven, to public schools, which begin at age five, and found no long-term benefit to earlier instruction. In fact, many of the studies which show an advantage to early reading instruction compare children’s proficiency at around age eight or nine.  What they don’t show is that by age ten or eleven, the advantage disappears, and that by twelve or thirteen, it reverses, with children taught later showing greater comprehension and enjoyment of reading than those taught earlier.

So one hypothesis is that American schools are not only assuming the normal developmental window for reading to be too narrow, they’re also placing it too early. In other words, it’s not like expecting all children to take their first steps at the average age of twelve months: it’s like expecting them all to take their first steps at the precocious age of ten months. In doing this you create a sub-class of children so bewildered, so anxious, whose natural processes of physical and neurological development and organization are so severely disrupted, that you literally have no way of knowing what they would have been like if you had not done this to them.

“Grade level standards,” please recall, do not exist in nature; they are not created scientifically, but by fiat.  And there has been almost no serious study of cognitive development in children whose learning has not been shaped by the arbitrary age grading of the school system. Finland simply sets its standards at a place where most children will succeed. The U.S. sets them at a place where a really significant percentage will fail. This is a choice. In making it, we may be creating disabilities in kids who would have been fine if allowed to learn to read on their own developmental schedule. 

Because guess what? If there is one thing that the data proves, it’s that our children are all different.

The letter “D,” by the way, makes the “duh” sound.




A common saying among Aboriginal people in Australia is, “All our children are clever.” Even the author of Brilliant: The Science of How We Get Smarter reports that, lo and behold, research is beginning to show that dyslexics are smarter in some ways than early readers. Did we really have to wait for science to discover this? Could we really not just look in our children’s bright eyes and know that they all bring something unique and precious to the world? Did we have to line them up and compare them and find a predictable percentage of them to be deficient and even “disabled?”

It is not up to our children to accept a disability label in order to “qualify” for an appropriate learning environment; it is up to adults to provide learning environments which are flexible enough to accommodate the natural variations in our children.
The “neurodiversity” movement has begun to challenge the educational hegemony which defines whose cognitive styles are “normal” and whose are a “disorder.” Blurry variations on an fMRI image notwithstanding, there is no persuasive scientific evidence that the vast majority of the 15-17% of the population estimated to be dyslexic are not perfectly healthy, normal people who simply have different talents and learn in different ways and on different timetables, and many dyslexics are beginning to push back against the disability model, asserting that they are no more “disabled” by their particular way of learning than a concert violinist is disabled by not being a good hockey player. Dyslexic children often have better imaginations than non-dyslexics, after all, but nobody labels the “normal” children as having an “imagination disability.”

It is not up to our children to accept a disability label in order to “qualify” for an appropriate learning environment; it is up to adults to provide learning environments which are flexible enough to accommodate the natural variations in our children.  We can accommodate children who read later and/or more slowly not as a special service for the disabled, but simply as a normal everyday matter of courtesy and respect for our fellow humans, who have a wide variety of strengths and weaknesses as we all do.

Dyslexia isn’t something that you have, says Dr. Ross Cooper, a dyslexia researcher who is dyslexic himself (he embraces the term the way gay folks have embraced the word “queer.”) It’s something that you are. And it’s something, he emphasizes, that has value as part of the spectrum of human diversity. Cooper hypothesizes that the common feature of many “specific learning disabilities” is a preference for processing information visually and holistically rather than verbally and analytically. Rather than narrowly focusing on things in a linear sequential way, the child with this tendency absorbs visual input and meaning and context in a “big picture” way (blurry colors lighting up in the right hemisphere of the brain), a process which may slow down decoding but which also deepens and enriches it, leading to lateral thinking, intuition, imagination and creativity. These children’s brains are organizing themselves differently, and it should go without saying that their developmental arc may therefore be different. When we interfere in the process of this organization, when we stigmatize it and test it and remediate it prematurely -– when we try to teach dyslexics to think like other children by aggressively drilling them in phonics –– Cooper says we are robbing these children of the opportunity to build organically on their many strengths rather than being treated as something broken that needs fixing. 

Interestingly, children from traditional indigenous cultures often process information holistically and contextually rather than analytically as well. If you ask people from urban non-native cultures to divide a list of plants and animals into groups, they will tend do it taxonomically, separating them into the categories of mammals, birds, fish, plants. If you ask a Native person, they may do it ecologically, with a turtle, willow, heron, and beaver all in the same group because they all live in a wetland.  The test may register this as a “wrong” answer, because schools tend to emphasize taxonomic, analytic thinking. But the second answer reflects a form of holistic systems thinking that rural Native children may be fluent in at a younger age than their urban, non-native peers. 

City kids who grow up among cartoon mice who talk and fish who sing show tunes are often so delayed in their grasp of real living systems that Henrich et al. suggest that studying the cognitive development of biological reasoning in urban children may be “the equivalent of studying “normal” physical growth in malnourished children.” But in schools, rural Native children are tested and all too often found to be less intelligent and more learning “disabled” than urban white children, a deeply disturbing phenomenon which turns up among traditional rural people all over the world.

Why is this? As intelligence researcher James Flynn has discovered, if you calculate average U.S. IQ scores from a hundred years ago against today’s renormed tests, you find that by a modern definition the grandparents and great-grandparents of most white Americans would be categorized as mentally disabled. Does this mean your ancestors were morons?  Yeah, maybe.  But what it probably means is that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, most European-Americans, like many indigenous people today, lived in a world where real concrete contextualized knowledge and intelligence, not abstracted school-based knowledge, was necessary for survival. Malcolm Gladwell reports in The New Yorker that when psychologist Michael Cole gave members of the Kpelle tribe of Liberia a version of the WISC similarities test, they found that the Kpelle would consistently sort a knife and a potato into the same category “because a knife is used to cut a potato:”

“A wise man could only do such-and- such,” they explained. Finally,
the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories.

So the IQ test, like other school-based tests, turns out to be not so much a measure of intelligence as a measure of modernization — of a large-scale cultural shift in industrialized societies from concrete to abstract thinking, from holistic to analytic thinking, from contextualized systems thinking to de-contextualized linear thinking.

In other words, your IQ is not a measure of how smart you are. It’s a measure of how WEIRD you are.In other words, your IQ is not a measure of how smart you are. It’s a measure of how WEIRD you are.

Fine, you might say; but isn’t that an inevitable and positive stage in human “development” as societies become more technologically complex and intellectually “advanced?” Not according to Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist and neuroimaging researcher whose groundbreaking book The Master and his Emissary argues that the narrowly focused, mechanical, analytic part of the brain so dominant in modern societies actually evolved as a limited tool to be guided and restrained by the more broadly focused, holistic, relationship-based part of the brain. Modern western civilization, McGilchrist maintains, is not more “advanced” than other human societies, but rather has become dangerously unbalanced in the direction of a kind of cold, abstracted, mechanical analysis at the expense of a more interconnected, compassionate, holistic understanding of the world. That kind of imbalance, as McGilchrist points out, does not make you more “brilliant” than other people; it makes you a sociopath.

Human cognitive diversity exists for a reason; our differences are the genius – and the conscience – of our species. It’s no accident that indigenous holistic thinkers are the ones who have been consistently reminding us of our appropriate place in the ecological systems of life as our narrowly-focused technocratic society veers wildly between conservation and wholesale devastation of the planet.  It’s no accident that dyslexic holistic thinkers are often our artists, our inventors, our dreamers, our rebels. 

Marie Battiste, a Mi’kmaw education professor at the University of Saskatchewan, has a very clear term for the tendency of one powerful group to claim the authority to define its own cognitive traits and preferences as normal and desirable and all other ways of thinking, learning, and understanding the world as deficits and disabilities: she calls it “cognitive imperialism.” It’s the cognitive equivalent of racism. It leads naturally, of course, to a kind of cognitive Manifest Destiny that assumes that one way of thinking, of learning, of being in the world is destined to overwhelm and replace all others.

Which brings us back to phonics. George Bush’s “Reading Czar,” Reid Lyon, drew a lot of media attention with the boast that his approach to reading instruction was “based on science, not philosophy.” (There’s that tone again.) But there is nothing “scientific” about the effort to decide on the One Best Evidence-Based Method for teaching reading to all children. As Henrich et al. point out, WEIRD research comes to WEIRD conclusions because it is being conducted by WEIRD researchers who ask WEIRD questions. In this case the question they asked was, “If we are going to force every child in the United States to learn to read in one way, what should that way be?”

But there is no scientific reason to make that the question. It is a philosophical — and a profoundly political — choice.




Any Yanomami father knows that you don’t have to force young children to learn, you just give them the tools they need and then let them play. Any Cree grandmother knows that if you see a child doing something incorrectly, you don’t shame her by overtly pointing it out, you just quietly, without fanfare, demonstrate the right way to do it. Any Odawa elder knows that a child will sometimes learn more from your silence than from your speech.

Slowly, falteringly, painstakingly, science is rediscovering some of this.

Since the Enlightenment, every generation of scientists has tended to fall into the fallacy that now we stand at the apex of human knowledge and understanding, that error has fallen away at our feet, and that now we “know” how things really are. Depending on the domain being studied, this intellectual hubris can yield results which are comical, awkward, destructive, or, when it comes to children, tragic. In the 1950’s scientists “knew” that baby formula was better for children than human milk, an absurdity which has been responsible for the deaths by diarrheal disease and malnutrition of millions of infants in the developing world. They “knew” that newborns, like animals, did not have sufficiently developed neural systems to feel pain, so they performed surgery on millions of infants (and animals) without anesthesia. They “knew” that people learn as a consequence of positive or negative reinforcements for behavior rather than as a result of internal passions, drives, and preferences –- let alone as a result of a celestial river running through them ––  so they persuaded an entire education system to train children like pigeons and rats, with incessant scrutiny and “feedback,” punishments and rewards.

Right now American phonics advocates are claiming that they “know” how children learn to read and how best to teach them. They know nothing of the kind.  A key value in serious scientific inquiry is also a key value in every indigenous culture around the world: humility.  We are learning.

But every Inuit parent knows you tell stories in the evening, when the child’s mind is relaxed and expansive, and before sleep which carries words and images deep into the soul. Science is rediscovering that memories are consolidated at night, despite the previous generation’s “data” which “proved” that children learn best in the morning. Children often listen better at night, they ask deeper questions at night, they imagine more vividly at night. In the brightness of day the mind turns outward to the world, a child often wants to be moving and active and socially interacting, and the things you are told in the morning may ping off all this buzzing activity like a moth pings off a moving fan. The things you are told at night are carried inward, they enter your dreams, they effortlessly become part of you.

So what are we to do while we wait for science to rediscover all this, for the data to prove it? What are we to do with this child, this completely unique constellation of human gifts and brilliances and burdens, this unique normal bright healthy radiant human child who stands before us today, right now, this very minute?

Like the proverbial fish who hasn’t yet discovered the water, education researchers are still so limited by the WEIRD set of assumptions that confine their range of inquiry that they haven’t realized that the element they live in is not the entire world.We still need need wisdom, not data, to raise good children. Ironically, while the science of learning is still crude, primitive, the cultures some call “primitive” embed knowledge about human development that is sophisticated, profound, nuanced, and empirical, based on thousands of years of observation, intuition, experimentation, insight. Talk to gifted scientists, writers, artists, entrepreneurs. You will find they learned like a Yanomami child learns, through keen observation, experimentation, immersion, freedom, participation, through real play and real work, through the kind of free activity where the distinction between work and play disappears. Talk to a really good auto mechanic, carpenter, farmer, fiddle player, web designer, film editor, songwriter, photographer, chef, and you will find they learned the same way. 

Education researchers are slowly beginning to peer through their spectacles at this phenomenon, but only just beginning. Like the proverbial fish who hasn’t yet discovered the water, most are still so limited by the WEIRD set of assumptions that confine their range of inquiry that they haven’t realized that the element they live in is not the entire world; they haven’t seen that they are circling inside the glass walls of a fishbowl of their own creation, and that there is a universe of possibilities for learning that they have never dreamed of.

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top,” a great artist once said. Science is a tool of breathtaking power and beauty, but it is not a good parent; it must be balanced by something broader, deeper, older. Like wind and weather, like ecosystems and microorganisms, like snow crystals and evolution, human learning remains untamed, unpredictable, a blossoming fractal movement so complex and so mysterious that none of us can measure or control it. But we are part of that fractal movement, and the ability to help our offspring learn and grow is in our DNA. We can begin rediscovering it now. Experiment. Observe. Listen. Explore the thousand other ways of learning that still exist all over the planet. Read the data and then set it aside. Watch your child’s eyes, what makes them go dull and dead, what makes them brighten, quicken, glow with light. That is where learning lies.




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Billions For an Inside Game on Reading, Michael Grunewald, Washington Post, October 1, 2006.

Starting school at seven ‘can boost pupils’ reading skills:’ Delaying the school starting age can improve children’s grasp of reading at the end of primary education, according to research.  Graeme Paton, The Telegraph, May 25, 2012.

1 In 4 Americans Thinks The Sun Goes Around The Earth, Survey Says, Scott Neuman, The 2-Way, Breaking News from NPR, February 14, 2014.

First Amendment education surveys keep challenging us to try new things, Eric Newton, The Knight Blog, The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, November 8, 2012.

“We’ve done the largest string of studies about First Amendment education in America’s high schools, so what are we learning?  …My bottom line: I had seen First Amendment education as a school issue; now, I think young people may be able to learn about the nation’s five fundamental freedoms outside the classroom as easily as they do inside. Maybe even easier.”

Someone Has To Fail:  The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling, David F. Larabee, Harvard University Press, 2010.

“Colonial America had no system of education.  Instead it provided a loose collection of informal ways to provide basic literacy and numeracy skills to most of the population and advanced learning to a few.  Parents taught their own children in the home, or if they could afford it they hired a tutor. Churches provided religious education for the young, which required them to offer literacy training as part of the process.  Parents contracted with master craftsmen to take on their sons as apprentices, which meant not only teaching them a trade but also teaching them to read, write, and figure.  In a variant of this practice, parents frequently boarded out their children with another family, which in turn agreed to educate them as part of the arrangement.  Often a woman in the neighborhood would take in students for a fee and teach them the basics in her own home… Most students received some form of education during this period, and most of these did not attend anything resembling a school…

“(The Common School Movement) was not an effort to raise the literacy rate, which was already near universal in New England and elevated in the rest of the country… The massive public investment in constructing the school system in the mid-nineteenth century did little to increase rates of literacy.  The system did not even increase the likelihood that a young person would receive an education, since that was already taking place in some form or other for most Americans in the early part of the century.  What the system did do was increase the likelihood that young people… would acquire their education in the setting of a formally constituted school, which was publicly controlled, age graded, and run by a trained teacher.”

American Reading Instruction, Nila Banton Smith, International Reading Association, 2002. First published in 1934.  An account of the major developments and pendulum swings in the teaching of reading.

A New Discovery of the Old Art of Teaching School, Charles A. Hoole, 1660

There is much that is familiar in the musings of  Mr. Hoole, who shows great compassion for “the extreme labour and terror of the poor children with enduring far overmuch and long severity…” and suggests several games involving words and letters to help children learn to read.  He observes that while “apter” pupils learn quickly with formal direct instruction, others, who,”not finding any thing to affect them, and so make them heed what they learne, go on remissely from lesson to lesson, and are not much more able to read, when they have ended their book, then when they began it.”  He recommends a kind of “Suzuki” method for teaching reading, where the child’s mother is to “acquaint him a little with the matter beforehand, for that will intice him to read it, and make him more observant of what he read’s.”  In fact, mothers often “taught little ones to pronounce all the letters, and to spell pretty well,” before coming to school, “by making the childe to sound the five vowels a, e, i, o, u, like so many bells upon his fingers ends…Then putting single consonants before the vowels (leaving the hardest of them to the last) and teaching him how to utter them both at once, as va ve vi vo vu….”   

In other words, just as with the Suzuki method of music instruction in which children listen to a tune over and over so that it is encoded in their memory AND learn to play it before they try to decode it explicitly on the sheet music, this method of teaching reading involved children memorizing whole verses, rhymes, and syllables — and actually learning to spell syllables — before learning to decode them as text on paper.  Hoole is very aware that no single method works for all children, however, and takes it as a given that if one way does not work, other methods can be found.  As he says, 

“Indeed it is Tullies observation of old, and Erasmus his assertion of latter years, that it is as natural for a childe to learn, as it is for a beast to go, a bird to fly, or a fish to swim, and I verily believe it, for the nature of man is restlessly desirous to know things, and were discouragements taken out of the way, and meet helps afforded young learners, they would doubtless go on with a great deal more cheerfulness, and make more proficiency at their book then usually they do; And could the Master have the discretion to make their lessons familiar to them, children would as much delight in being busied about them, as in any other sport, if too long continuance at them might not make them tedious.”

Ngecha: A Kenyan Village in a Time of Rapid Social Change, Carolyn Pope Edwards & Beatrice Blyth Whiting, eds. University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Indigenising Curriculum: Questions posed by Baiga vidya, Padma M. Sarangapani, Comparative Education, Volume 39, 2003.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems / Alaska Native Ways of Knowing.  By Ray Barnhardt and Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley, Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 36(1), pp. 8-23.  2005.

The Edge of the Forest: Land, Childhood, and Change in a New Guinea Protoagricultural Society, E. Richard Sorenson, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1976.

Childhood in an Indian Village, Wilfred Peltier. New England Free Press, 1969.

“I have been to numerous communities across Canada and I still do not find where Indians teach. All young children were allowed to grow, to develop, and to learn….We learned … by listening to the words adults spoke, what they said when they were talking, and built our own kind of relationship with (things.)…

…One of the practiced ethics of the community was non-interference. No one interfered with us, and this way of living still exists today. If you go to an Indian home the kids don’t come up and bug you while you are talking to someone else. They might come and stand by you quietly, just as an adult might. If you observe Indians someplace, they will stand quietly, and only when they are acknowledged, will they speak. If they get into a group session, they will act the same way. They will sit and listen to people talk, and when they get the opportunity they will speak, but they won’t cut you off or interfere. There are some who do this now, but not very many. Most of them will just wait. The whole background of the educational system was that of observing and feeling. This is how they learned.”

The Weirdest People in the World?  Joseph Henrich, Stephen J. Heine, Ara Norenzayan, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2010.

The Australian Aboriginal View of Giftedness,  Wilhelmina J. Vialle, Kathleen Gibson, University of Wollongong Faculty of Education Research Online, 2007.

“Braggett (1985) suggested that Aboriginal children from traditional communities often find school an alien environment where they may be expected to accept white values, adopt different learning styles, and compete with their peers. Many Aboriginal children are brought up to accept cooperation in larger groups. Further, he stated that Aboriginal students are “high in memory skills, excel in visual-spatial ability, are persistent and stubborn, exhibit high internal motivation when interested, and are bored by routine tasks” (p. 3)”

“Aboriginal children … come from a cultural background which believes all children to be clever and that it is not acceptable to stand out above others (Kearins, 1988). For example, Ungunmerr (1976) discussed the problems of an Aboriginal child who is singled out and praised above the rest of the group. Such praise is an embarrassment and may make the praised child feel as though he or she has let down the rest of the group. Consequently, this child lowers her or his performance to follow cultural mores. In addition, Ungunmerr pointed out that the ethos in Aboriginal cultures is largely egalitarian by nature… The conflict between the home culture and the school culture of competition and ‘topping the class’ often make it difficult for educators from Western cultures to recognise giftedness in Aboriginal students.”

The Cultural Nature of Human Development, Barbara Rogoff, Oxford University Press, 2003.  I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a broad introduction to different cultural approaches to learning:

“The question of how quickly children can reach developmental “milestones” was referred to as “The American Question” when I studied at Jean Piaget’s Swiss Institute… Teachers in the United States and France routinely refer to children’s progress along a linear dimension measured now in months, such that children in the same school class are seen as being “ahead” or “behind” expected performance… Relevant to such judgments is whether their birthdate falls early or late in the year assigned to a particular grade level.  Children who are slower in following predefined stages of learning to read (on the teacher’s schedule) are regarded as failing or likely to become failures… despite lack of evidence that early achievement of milestones offers any inherent advantage.

“In some communities, infants are not expected to rapidly understand the ways of those around them, and adults are comfortable that infants will learn when they are ready if not pushed against their will.  Infants’ development is not conceived as progressing past a linear sequence of milestones in accord with a timeline.”

And on authority and control, quote from Minnie Aodla, Inuit:

“[Non-Inuit people] who have gone north and lived in the settlements, who do not understand Inuit home life or believe in our way of child-rearing, think that Inuit children are spoiled.  [When I visited a non-Inuit home in Ottawa], I could not help but notice the treatment of the children by the parents…. Words like “don’t,” “no,” “move” were to me like talking to a dog who was eating from some other dog’s dish or who did not obey commands given during sled travel.  My culture tells me that the word no leads to disobedient children who become very hard to handle later on.”

Learning to Read the World Through Other Eyes, open-access curriculum developed by Vanessa Andreotti and Lyn Mario T.M. de Souza for the Centre for Development Education Research (Institute of Education, University of London), University of Sao Paulo, University of Canterbury (Aotearoa/New Zealand), and Survival International. 2008.  Views of Maori learning come from interviews with Maori educator Mereana Taki.  Again, I would like to emphasize that Mereana Taki does not claim to speak for all Maori people, and this phrasing is merely meant to convey that, while individuals vary within all cultures, common views of learning vary widely between cultures.

Human Language and Our Reptilian Brain: The Subcortical Bases of Speech, Syntax, and Thought, Philip Lieberman, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Winter 2001.

Sugata Mitra’s new experiments in self-teaching, TED talk, 2010.  Mitra describes his famous “Hole In the Wall” experiment with Indian street children who collaboratively taught themselves to use computers with no adult instruction.

Children Teach Themselves To Read, Peter Gray, Psychology Today Freedom To Learn Blog, February 24, 2010.

The Reading Wars: Why Natural Learning Fails in Classrooms, The best practices for teaching reading in school do not mimic natural learning.  Peter Gray, Psychology Today Freedom to Learn Blog, November 2013.

Children learning to read later catch up to children reading earlierSebastian P. Suggate, Elizabeth A. Schaughency, Elaine Reese, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, April 22, 2012.

Does early reading instruction help reading in the long-term? A review of empirical evidence, Sebastian P. Suggate, ROSE Journal, July 2013.

School Starting Age: The Evidence.  David Whitebread, University of Cambridge, 2014.

“Earlier this month the “Too Much, Too Soon” campaign made headlines with a letter calling for a change to the start age for formal learning in schools. Here, one of the signatories, Cambridge researcher David Whitebread, from the Faculty of Education, explains why children may need more time to develop before their formal education begins in earnest.”

‘Neurotypical’ in Context, POV documentary, 2013.

Brain.HE, resource for neurodiverse students at the London School of Economics.  Contains “The Holist Manifesto” by Dr. Ross Cooper.

“Living in Relations” Research Project, a collaboration between the Menominee Indian Tribe, Northwestern University, and The American Indian Center (AIC) Research Project.   NPR podcast about the project.

Status and Trends in the Education of Racial and Ethnic Minorities, Table 8.1b. Number and percentage of children ages 3 to 5 and ages 6 to 21 served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), by race/ethnicity and type of disability: 2007, National Center For Education Statistics.

Note that this table shows that before school age, the rate of learning disability in Native American children is slightly lower than in white children, but during the school years, the diagnosis of learning disabilities in Native American children is more than twice the rate of diagnosis among white children.

Searching For Justice: The Discovery of IQ Gains Over Time, James R. Flynn, American Psychologist, January 1999.

None of the Above: What IQ Doesn’t Tell You About Race, Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, December 17, 2007

The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilhrist, Yale University Press, 2012.

Indigenous Knowledge: Foundations For First Nations, Marie Battiste, World Indigenous Nations Higher Education Consortium (WINHEC) Journal, 2005.

Cognitive imperialism is a form of cognitive manipulation used to disclaim other knowledge bases and values. Validated through one’s knowledge base and empowered through public education, it has been the means by which whole groups of people have been denied existence and have had their wealth confiscated. Cognitive imperialism denies people their language and cultural integrity by maintaining the legitimacy of only one language, one culture, and one frame of reference…

“What is apparent to Indigenous peoples is the need for a serious and far-reaching examination of the assumptions inherent in western knowledge, science and modern educational theory. How these assumptions create the moral and intellectual foundations of modern society and culture have to be studied and written about by Aboriginal people to allow space for Aboriginal consciousness, language, and identity to flourish without ethnocentric or racist interpretation.”

References to learning in Cree culture are from personal communication at the RESEARCH SYMPOSIUM: LIVING ALL OUR RELATIONS: ECOLOGIES, TECHNOLOGIES, AND INDIGENEITY, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, March, 2013.  There is no intention to represent all Cree people with this reference; the phrasing is merely meant to convey that, while individuals vary within all cultures, what is viewed as “common sense” about learning varies widely between cultures.



  1. Shauna ReisewitzShauna Reisewitz08-09-2014

    This is one of the most beautiful articles I have ever read on learning and child development. Thank you for the work you do. You have put so many of my thoughts and reasons for raising my children the way i do in a well written, wonderful article… Thank You!

  2. AnneAnne08-09-2014

    Lots to think about here. I must admit I have found myself growing frustrated with Twitter lately with all the pronouncements of what must ‘be’. This is a good reminder to get back to what is important. Thank you.

  3. Gary McIverGary McIver08-10-2014

    Thank you for describing so eloquently and accurately 1.) how very deeply meaningful and rewarding it is to be a teacher; and 2.) how bizarre and destructive some of the conditions and practises are, under which so many teachers, parents and children suffer.

  4. SusanneSusanne08-10-2014

    WOW! Thank you for helping keep the home-schooling, self-directed learning fires burning in our hearts. Our child has just come into the world, but we ponder his education so often. Home-schooling seems like such a daunting responsibility — and then we consider the alternatives. Thank you, thank you! I wish every person with children could/would read your article. It gave me a lot of hope for the future. The pendulum will swing back to what our evolutionary continuum demands — freedom to learn in our own way!

  5. jenny johnstonjenny johnston08-10-2014

    What a beautifully written article. So many treasures and gems in one place. Thank you for the immense amount of work that went into this.

    I homeschool my daughters, originally because my oldest showed no interest in reading, and i mean NONE!!

    You might be interested in reading my blog, about how Vision Therapy took my daughter from dyslexic and 3 years behind to no longer dyslexic and only 6 months behind.

  6. Katherine NormanKatherine Norman08-11-2014

    This is a brilliant piece, and has struck so many chords with how my daughters are learning.
    A must read. Am going to add to the recommended links on learning to read on my blog …

  7. Dana OrtegonDana Ortegon08-11-2014

    This is a magnificent piece. A joy to read! And something that I’ll likely forward ad nauseum.

    However, one teeny, tiny thing tweaked me a bit and that is your declaration that, “people today do not even know what children are actually like. They only know what children are like in schools.”

    My kids go to Sudbury Valley School (sudval.org) and they both adore it, the one that started reading at 2 and the one that started reading at 9. :) Sudbury Valley is — obviously — a school, but it in no way resembles what many people think of when they think of “school.” So, I’d just say that not all schools are created evil.

    Thank you for this piece!

  8. Charlotte SkinnerCharlotte Skinner08-11-2014

    What a fantastic article, one which has truly reignited my passion for unschooling. Thank you.

  9. Courtney La RosaCourtney La Rosa08-11-2014

    The best article ever written supporting home schooling and child-led learning. This reminds me very much of the way I felt when I first read Thomas Sowell’s book, Late Talking Children (and his follow up, The Einstein Syndrome) – I’m nodding my head in agreement as I read your article the same way I did when I read those books and it felt like I had finally found someone who ‘got it’. Thanks so much for this wonderful piece.

  10. Oh yes yes, a thousand times yes! What an incredible read full of passion and inspiration!

    This is why I parent how I do and why learning looks like it does in our home!

    Thank you.

  11. Sue LyleSue Lyle08-14-2014

    One of the best pieces I have read on learning. Powerful, insightful, inspirational. Inspires hope that there is a way to overcome the madness that is education in the UK today.

  12. Liz S.Liz S.08-15-2014

    Carol, I want every WEIRD parent on earth to read your words.

    This is simply the best article I’ve ever read on the topic of our “education” system and why it’s so fundamentally broken. I may not give my daughter any curriculum to follow, but you’ve just laid out a blueprint for me to follow in how to talk to others about what we do.

  13. Free the children already.Free the children already.08-15-2014

    so eloquent. wow. I have just posted this to everyone on facebook and in my homeschooling group. I wish I could persuade more people to abandon the absurd nonsense that is known as schooling. even within my homeschool group, most of the mothers are stuck in this WEIRD mindset and are harming their own kids by it! Ive sometimes thought that homeschooling according to the school-at-home method could be more harmful than just sending the child to school because all of the shaming, pressure, and ugliness are coming from the child’s own mother! but thank you for this beautiful piece of writing.

  14. Thom ChaumThom Chaum08-15-2014

    Thank you for a very inspiring read. This truly is a gorgeous text. I don’t have any children myself, but I can relate to everything you have put into words about the schooling institution. I am French, but the problems at stake here in France are obviously quite similar to the ones you’re raising.

    I happen to be a translator, working the English-French language pair, and I would be happy to translate this paper, which I could publish on my site (under construction right now, but soon to be pushed live, early September or maybe late August), or better yet, try to publish it in a French or francophone publication.

    Also, I don’t know if you have read it, but I guess Jacques Rancière’s “Le Maître ignorant” (translated in English, I believe, as “The Ignorant Schoolmaster”) would please and inspire you. Maybe I’m wrong, I have read it some years ago, but it certainly echoes what you’ve written here, at least to my mind.

    Thanx again for a refreshing read in these oh-so-troubled times!

  15. CrazyWorldCrazyWorld08-16-2014

    What does one do if left at home to his devices, your child would rather play video games all day? Or watch tv? Let him? If there is no interest in much else?

  16. I have been an unschooler for 11 years, a mother to video-game-loving boys, and I now work with teens at a self-directed learning center. This article is brilliant and beautiful. Thank you. OpenDoorsforTeens.org

  17. catherine bellcatherine bell08-17-2014

    WEIRD. love it!

  18. Ann SAnn S08-18-2014

    I studied psychology in the mid/late 80′s, earning a masters and doctorate in the field. I have to tell you that I was taught, clearly, repeatedly, and in no uncertain terms, that standardized IQ tests measure a person’s “likelihood of succeeding in education” (I think that’s an exact quote from my Ed Psych professor, he was referring to primary through higher education in WEIRD countries). I was taught that intelligence is not well-defined or well-measured, that there are many aspects to intelligence that we don’t know how to quantify or measure, and IQ tests only measure a few aspects of it. I was further taught that such tests are culturally biased and do not generalize well across cultures, and that using them to test members of cultures outside of what you have called the WEIRD culture will not yield accurate results. I guess I’m telling you this because I want you to know that not all of the experts are buttonholing children the way you have experienced, we do know the limits of testing, and the dangers of categorizing children based on test results.

    I think this rigid standardization you are observing is more politically based than scientifically based. I think most people with advanced education and research experience in the psychology of learning will agree that many, many children of “normal” intelligence do not learn well in the typical school environment found in the US or some western European countries. Many, if not most of the problems you identify here (in my opinion) are the result of trying to standardize education for the benefit of teachers, school boards, budget-setters and policy-makers, and not for the benefit of the children at all. There is a mistaken belief that we can somehow factory-educate our children, and that this is more cost-efficient and will produce uniformly educated children (none of those beliefs appear to be based in reality). Teaching to the test is an effort to produce results that support this strategy. Many teachers will complain passionately that they know this is not the best way to educate, but they are pressured by their employers to teach in this manner. Unfortunately most parents do not have the luxury of either home-schooling or sending their children to non-traditional schools. Though some parents do make huge sacrifices in order to do so, not all parents are able to. School, as we know, also functions as day-care for parents while they are at work. And many parents do not have the knowledge or the temperament to educate their children at home. I don’t know what the answer is, I fully agree that this is a misguided and dangerous way to treat our children. Guess I just wanted to tell you that many of the “experts” are on your side, it’s just that no one is listening to them.

  19. Carol BlackCarol Black08-18-2014

    Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful comments. Ann, I agree with everything you say here; that’s why I put the word “consensus” in quotes. Of course responsible researchers have a realistic sense of the limitations of their own data, as well as a more realistic sense of the varieties of ways that children learn, and they are loathe to see early findings rushed into misguided public policy without adequate validation. It is by no means my intent to condemn all scientific research into learning and cognition, but simply to question the oversimplified version of science which leads popular journalists and politicians (and yes, some educators and researchers) to claim that we now “know” how children learn to read. (In fairness, some professionals who deal with dyslexia and other learning problems may be exaggerating the degree of scientific certainty about these phenomena in an effort to secure special services and accommodations for students who clearly need them.)

    As you say, many teachers feel trapped by current constraints and yearn for a more flexible approach to early education: I think it is instructive here to note that the National Reading Panel whose findings about reading instruction became the basis for current policy did not include a single person who actually teaches reading to young children. A very high percentage of reading teachers consider it obvious that children learn differently and that different methods or combinations of methods may be best for each child, and they are unbelievably frustrated at their lack of ability to respond to the needs of individual children.

    I could not agree more that the current push for standardization is politically based rather than scientifically based — and as always, to make sense of politics, you just have to follow the money. The whole idea of “research-based instruction” leads to a perpetual bonanza for the textbook and testing industries, which will have to supply new materials every couple of years in response to the latest data. All the talk of corporate influence on charter schools overlooks the huge profits that are to be made when a public school system adopts a single textbook for an entire state, which of course leads to heavy corporate influence on education policy that affects millions of children. If corporate publishers can get a whole nation to adopt a single textbook to meet a national standard, so much the better for them.

    My point is not that all people should “homeschool” –– like many in the so-called “homeschooling” movement, I consider the word in any case to be a misnomer ––but that as a society we need to let go of the idea of one-size-fits-all education and the legal compulsion that enforces it, and support the growth of a wide variety of community-based options for children and families which support not just academic learning but families, communities, and connection to both nature and the larger world. There are untapped wells of creativity in our communities which could be developed if more people could let go of the panicky fear of their children “falling behind” which is generated by arbitrary age-based standards, and there is much that researchers, teachers, schools, and parents can learn by watching the development of children whose learning is not constrained by artificial ideas of “grade level.” Open models of community-based learning could be developed that run more on a community college or rec center model, where classes and programs of all kinds could provide children and families the kind of support and child care they need without restricting or stigmatizing the person who doesn’t fit the mold. These could include more flexible programs which make the school permeable to the community, including programs for multi-age groups of children, programs open to both teens and adults, and work-study and mentorship programs which get kids out into the community and adults into the school.

    It only seems daunting if you think in the current top-down model and assume that change has to be legislated from above and enforced all at once on a bewildered population. In reality, I believe that all you have to do is remove the current legal barriers to incremental change and many new models could potentially evolve quite rapidly and fluidly.

  20. Krista AriasKrista Arias08-20-2014

    I adore this article and will share and refer to it over and over again.

    I also have a comment about something I see a lot in these kinds of articles. I understand why you refer to your now successful college-attending daughter, “When she was twenty she was the head writing tutor at her college.” There is still a need to prove that our freak way of approaching education converges with standard expectations in post secondary education. However, what I want to see more of is a critique of these institutions of higher education because a lot of bright students are barred from entry (or graduation) due to their “holistic learning style” (often tied to their ancestral indigenous lineage) and we need these voices represented in our cultural elite, in our circle of Elders and in our leaders. We need to require holism of our scientists, intellectuals and professionals.

    Thanks for a wonderful defense of true education.

    • Carol BlackCarol Black08-20-2014

      That’s a great point, Krista. A huge part of the problem is that people trying to research whether alternative education approaches “work” continue to evaluate them according to the metrics of the mainstream system, and most people who choose alternative forms of learning do so exactly because they do not accept those metrics. I’m certainly not claiming that my kid, or alternatively educated kids in general, are somehow “smarter” by those standards than other people’s conventionally educated children, and I hope my story doesn’t come across that way. The Aboriginal saying “all of our children are clever” reflects the idea that the goal of learning is not to be better than other people, but simply to become who you are and develop the capacities that you have. That kid who was diagnosed with ADHD and got lousy grades in school probably built your house, fixed your car, played guitar on your favorite song, wrote and directed and acted in and edited your favorite movie, grew your food and cooked your restaurant dinner, taught your kid to swim or ski or play soccer, took that beautiful photograph on your wall, designed the software you’re using right now, helped you out when you were sick, made you laugh when you were depressed, or gave you the best advice you got when you were hurt or confused about something.

      So whether he could divide fractions in the fourth grade or write a paper on the symbolism in Macbeth in the eleventh grade may actually not be a particularly valuable measure of anything.

      And as you say, when you see what happens when doctors and bankers and chemists and nuclear engineers and diplomats and businessmen do not have a holistic, contextualized understanding of how their thoughts and actions impact the world, you come to feel it might be a bigger problem than if your auto mechanic or your favorite movie director can’t tell you how many atoms of carbon there are in a glucose molecule.

  21. GarimaGarima08-20-2014

    It id definitely one of the clearest, and cleverest article written on the topic. Atleast one that I have read.

    We as a society are in such a hurry to “develop” – new gadgets, new tech.. faster and faster… it is a mad rush to NOWHERE. I have found, in my own kids, a profound inability to do nothing. They need to be occupied all the time externally, as if solitude is somehow a dangerous thing. As if being in guided situations forever has left them incapable of guiding themselves.

    It is also a good reminder of something that Rumi once said- “they are not our kids- they are nature’s. “

  22. Milva McDonaldMilva McDonald08-22-2014

    Not since reading my first John Taylor Gatto essay more than 20 years ago have I felt so moved, inspired, and excited by a piece of writing on education. THANK YOU.

  23. andrew mcguinessandrew mcguiness08-29-2014

    A wonderful article, directed straight to truly important points.

  24. Anne RichardsonAnne Richardson09-07-2014

    I am struck by the ways your analysis matches the concerns/hopes/conflicts of traditional Kenyan parents as documented in KENYA BORAN, an ethnographic documentary made in 1974 by James Blue and David MacDougall.


    KENYA BORAN was an epiphany for Blue. Before: He made public diplomacy documentaries about US aid to Third World countries After: he engaged in ultra regional activism for equal access to media as a form of social justice.


    In many ways, Blue’s learning curve as a filmmaker, and his response as an activist, prefigures the concerns expressed in Schooling The World.

    I tried to email this via the contact page, but the emails did not go through. I apologize if this is a duplicate message!


  25. Carol BlackCarol Black09-08-2014

    Thanks so much for this information Anne! I will definitely check it out! best, Carol

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If you wanted to change a culture in a single generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children.