Dedication: This essay is dedicated to my daughters Aila and Sumay. Your creation of, “WEquil.School”, during the coronavirus outbreak inspired me to share my deeply personal story in hopes that it may help more kids learn to love learning.
Dear Teachers and Parents,
I failed Kindergarten...and was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) shortly after. Most of my childhood I thought I was dumb. This was my big secret...but sometimes life presents opportunities to share our secrets in hopes that they may help a greater good.
As I write this essay, schools across the country are shut down, and parents are being forced to juggle work and educate their kids. For many parents...this is a struggle. But for many kids...it’s the first time they are being treated like individuals with their own unique strengths and interests.
In this essay I share my own experience struggling through the traditional public education system, a system that has not changed much since the industrial revolution. I then provide several reasons why I believe that our digital age and our creativity driven economy require a rethink of childhood education.
My hope is that my story can inspire others who felt or feel like failures … who never got the benefit of early childhood education, tutors, and a stable family. These are gifts my wife and I bring to our daughters today, and they make a difference. But the only thing that really matters is learning to love learning.
Picture: Baby Sumay
My parents broke up when I was four years old...the same year I started Kindergarten. Memories are hazy, but I do remember the fights. My brother and sister and I would play games while our parents argued.
Sumay and Aila, my daughters, had books in their hands when they were babies. My wife and I sent them to Montessori Schools starting at age 2. They could read small words by age 3. When I must have been about 4, I remember playing in a sandbox. It was dark out...but I didn’t mind as I played with my toys...alone. I didn’t know a single letter.
Shortly after my parents split up I was told I failed Kindergarten. We kids moved to Iowa to live with my Mom’s parents in Winfield Iowa. New school … new rules. My grandmother, Betty Wittrig (Momow) loved telling me a story of what the principal told her upon hearing that I had flunked Kindergarten. She said, “Your new school doesn’t believe in holding kids back. After school, you get to go to a special class where they will help you keep up with your new class”. My face widened and I yelled out, “Yippee! I’m part of the world!”
I guess they would call the class “Special Needs” today. There were only five of us. Most had been diagnosed with learning disabilities...as I would a few years later. My teacher was an angel. She helped kids like me because she loved making a difference. She reminds me of my sister, also a Special Edu teacher. Most of those kids wouldn’t have a chance without people like them...and yet they remain some of the most underpaid and under appreciated professionals in the USA.
By the second grade I had graduated out of “Special Edu” and even scored at the top 99% for math on a standardized test, but my success was short-lived. We moved again...this time with my Dad and Stepmother, Albina, before I started the third grade. New school … new rules … and theirs were less forgiving. The hardest part was making friends and fitting in, problems that my wife never had to contend with. She had an entirely different set of challenges.
My wife went to an elementary school that was literally just a concrete bunker. The toilet was a hole in the ground. One day a child accidentally fell in the hole and the teacher had to fish him out. Kids didn’t have books. The schools could only afford one book...so the “lecture” consisted of the teacher writing the text on the blackboard for the students to copy. You were tested on your ability to remember what had been written.
She went to school at dawn, riding an adult-sized bicycle to school starting at age five. They learned math, Chinese and English. Unfortunately, their English teacher didn’t really know English, so conversational English was largely skipped over in favor of memorizing words.
The gym class consisted of running for a half-hour followed by a few minutes of PingPong played on concrete tables. Lihong’s classmates studied all day until dinner...with the only break being a short power-nap around noon. She would typically fall asleep with a book in her lap before waking up the next day to repeat the same schedule six and a half days a week...all year long. Such a rigorous schedule seems unhealthy to many western readers, but Lihong did not find it stressful. Kids knew what was expected of them, and that was to study.
With so much time dedicated to studying there was almost no time for friends or messing around. Quite the opposite of her husband, Lihong skipped Kindergarten and was always at the top of her class. One occasion she decided to draw a picture instead of listening to her teacher review the answers to a test she had Aced. Her teacher walked up to her and hit her over the head with a wooden ruler. That was the last time she ever lost focus...until she met me.
Third grade was hard for me because it was the beginning of social pressures and anxieties of fitting in … It was especially hard by being in a new school district and a family still trying to piece itself back together. Unlike many growing up in China, there were a lot of distractions, and I had a hard time paying attention to my studies.
That’s when I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). A specialist sat me down and asked me a few questions. Then we bounced a ball back and forth for about five minutes. After that, he told my parents I had ADD and wrote them a prescription for Ritalin. Momow told me later that the same doctor, “had diagnosed lots of little boys” … and that was a key reason she did not trust him.
It turns out that lots of “little boys” were being put on medication so they would “calm down” back then. Teachers valiantly trying to keep order in a classroom of 30 kids can’t really be blamed for what is now widely regarded as a bit of an overdiagnosis of kids, especially boys, that never evolved to sit in a chair for hours a day taking notes. If you type word “overdiagnosis” into Google and the first suggestion is .
My parents and grandparents didn’t let me take any medication, and I’m thankful for that. Many people need medication, but for me, I think it would have stunted my ability to hone my unique personality and develop natural coping mechanisms. It would take years before I figured this out though. All I knew at the time was that I was struggling at home, doing poorly at school, didn’t have any real friends, and a “Doctor” said I had a disability.
In short...I thought I was stupid.
But a seed of hope was planted in the Fifth Grade. My stepmother, Albina, came to me after I delivered a poor first-quarter report card. She had asked my teacher, Mrs. Wunch, if I could get extra help...but was turned down.
Albina looked me right in the eye and said, “Joe...you are smart...you just need to prove it to her.” The next week my teacher gave us all a pre-exam to assess where we stood in understanding fractions, decimals, and percentages. I aced it. Mrs. Wunch walked up to me and asked, “How do you know this already?” I just sat there not knowing what to say. She told me I would be bored for the next two weeks given my results so she offered to let me do a project of my choosing so long as it involved applying fractions, decimals, and percentages.
That was the first time I ever got to have a say in what I did at school. I walked home stunned. My mind was racing. What did I want to do? I hadn’t ever been asked what I wanted to do.
My teacher gave me a hall pass so I could conduct a survey of students around the school. I was in my element...and learned more about myself, the value of numbers, and public speaking during those two weeks than I probably learned that entire year sitting in a classroom.
… then it was over.
All kids in public education are told they are students. They are told to learn from their teachers. Unfortunately, they are not told that the best way to learn is to teach. I had to wait until college to figure this out for myself.
Iowa State University (ISU) accepted me into their forestry program, one of the best in the country. I grew up on a tree farm so it was a natural choice. It also looked easy...no foreign language requirement and no higher math. There were a few classes, like Economics, that looked a bit intimidating to me...so I enrolled in that right away to get it over with. But given that I already knew so much about forestry I figured college would be a breeze.
Dr Brent Kreider taught me Economics 101. You could tell he loved teaching, mixing in concepts with stories from his own life. He taught two back to back courses to a crowd of more than 200 freshmen, and each day I attended both...in the front row. I loved his lectures the way many of my more religious friends loved sermons. The language of economics spoke to me … and I was hooked.
Economics provides a framework for rational decision making. It’s a framework that my wife, who got her Ph.D. in Economics from ISU, and I use every day. Sumay wrote an introduction to economics for WEquil.School. She did a better job of explaining it than I ever could.
Dr. Kreider held a “Supplemental Instruction” course led by a graduate student named William Rock. I attended even though I already knew the material so deeply that it was beginning to transform the way I saw the world. After William finished his prepared remarks I went around the other tables and helped teach the other students.
That first day … teaching my peers economics 101 … was the moment I realized I wasn’t stupid.
A month later, William told me that he was going on vacation for a couple of weeks and asked me if I would take over his Supplemental Instruction course while he was gone. I accepted. In my sophomore year, Dr. Kreider offered me a job previously reserved only for graduate students, teaching in the Economics Help Room.
My wife Lihong and I met in my junior year. She was a brilliant first-year Ph.D. We met in the help room where she sometimes came to watch me teach. I took that to mean she was into me, but she actually had no romantic interest in me until she saw me at church ( a separate story). Turns out...she was really just trying to practice her English.
After we started dating we ate dinner together most days before heading to her office. Many times a week, one of her Chinese classmates would gently knock on the door. Lihong would come and answer. They would speak in Mandarin for a few minutes before her classmate would graciously thank her with a “xie xie!”...the only part of the conversation that I followed. One day I asked her why her classmates kept coming by her office. She said, “to ask for help.” Later, Lihong casually mentioned to me that she received the third-highest college entrance exam score in the whole of her province.
During my senior year, I took over the Help Room and gave lectures to the incoming graduate students on strategies for teaching Introductory Economics. Managing graduate students as a senior undergraduate was a challenging role. Most appreciated that I had more experience, but a few were less than enthused.
The biggest problem I faced was that a few graduate students preferred to study instead of teach. I loved teaching everyone that walked in...even when I hadn’t taken the class yet. I also loved sharing my passion for the subject...sometimes to the point, that other undergraduate students would stick around to teach each other...all the while my graduate student colleagues would be in the other room hastily preparing for their qualifying exams.
My new rule required all teachers to take turns fielding questions from incoming students. Most complied happily, but two of the first-year Chinese students filed a formal complaint to Dr. Brent Kreider...saying that my rule was directly impacting them and was, therefore “racist”. They were right that they were the reason for the new rule. What they didn’t know is the definition of racism, or that I had just married one of their Chinese classmates. Dr. Kreider brought me into his office to tell me about it. I started to get really nervous until he started laughing.
Our final year at ISU we both won the Graduate Teaching Excellence Award. In the years that followed I continued to work with ISU through my Major Professor, dear friend, and personal hero … Dr. Peter Orazem.
Peter showed me how to love writing, research, and paying these gifts forward to the next generation. Since the moment I met him, he has relentlessly given himself to inspiring young people like myself. I’ve never met another human being with a more perfect mix of humor, intelligence, and passion for making a positive difference in the world. He nominated me for an Outstanding Young Alumni Award in 2018...and I was accepted.
Primary and secondary public education still revolves around a classroom setting in which, usually just one teacher lectures to around 30 kids. Teachers present curriculums to their students based on standards set by the state and federal government. Students are tested to assess their comprehension of these lessons. Those who pass move to the next level.
My experience was no different.
Little has changed since formal education began around the dawn of the industrial revolution. Yes, we have better schools, technology, and many wonderful teachers ... but we still rely on a system that at its core is roughly the same as it was 130 years ago.
Everyone has unique gifts, strengths, and weaknesses. Parents and teachers have the responsibility to teach all children core skills. Without reading, writing, and basic arithmetic a child has next to no chance of career success. Kids often need to be pushed to learn core skills before they are good enough to enjoy exercising them on their own.
So how do we do this?
There are broadly two approaches we can take:
Ask all kids to do the same homework assignments, read the same books, write the articles, and perform the same projects.
Ask each kid what their passions are, what they want to read, what they want to write, what projects they want to share with their peers.
The first is what we generally do now in public schools across the country. The second is what we are doing with WEquil.School.
Schools closed a month ago. Shortly after we had a family meeting to discuss our predicament with our daughters, Sumay (age 10) and Aila (age 7). We explained that we had to work so they would need to come up with a creative solution to educating themselves. We had already introduced them to Khan Academy and Crash Course...two excellent resources that provide materials on just about every subject you can think of. That weekend they went through the available courses and came up with a list of what they wanted to learn about.
Unlike in school, Sumay and Aila had the choice to learn together. Sumay would often pause the videos and help Aila to understand new concepts and words, reinforcing her own understanding in the process. At one point I found them cuddled up together with their blankets and stuffed animals while a Crash Course video on Statistics played in the background...so I felt the need to introduce the concept of "Active Learning". After that, they started taking notes on a shared Google Doc that updates in real-time.
A week later they had detailed notes about a variety of subjects they had chosen to learn about such as introductory biology, cosmology, economics, and statistics. I liked the fact that I could review their notes to assess the accuracy of their understanding and provide my own insights. We mentioned this to some friends who asked that we share the materials and links. And that's when they got the idea to start WEquil.School.
Our neighbor friends are in on it now also. Their daughter Aanya (also age 10) wrote a post about the World Wars and the Great Depression. Sumay provided edits and I discussed it with the three of them using Zoom. Her parents can edit and review the same Google Doc in real-time before we share it with friends on Facebook and Groups like the local PTA. Anyone that wants to contribute is welcome. We don't make any money off of it ... but we are making friends!
During the first week, they posted seven articles ... averaging five-minute reads. I'm not sure if they can keep up this pace. At some point, our girls will start to get cabin fever. They also deeply miss their friends and there is a lot to be said for having a professional teacher physically in the room. That said, I don't remember a two week period in which these girls learned so much.
The combination of choosing their own curriculum, sharing it with friends, teaching each other, and using technology you can rewind and replay on demand is a powerful combination.
Ten years from now our daughters will finally get the privilege to go deeply into debt for an opportunity to learn what they can already learn online. Not for all subjects...but most. Many parents find it surprising that we may not steer our kids toward college. Part of this is because my experience at ISU was so incredibly transformational for me. But the reality of our education system and the reality of the future economy suggests that such a view is not so radical.
Elon Musk created a school for his five kids. His school has two principles:
Cater to each kid’s unique talents and interests
Teach to the problem … not the tool
These two principles run counter to traditional education.
By asking our children to all follow the same curriculum we implicitly (albeit unintentionally) tell them that their individual interests and talents are irrelevant. We squander the opportunity to inspire them by connecting their voice and inspirations with ways they can add value to the real world.
By teaching tools instead of having them solve problems, we force them to memorize theoretical concepts without helping them link these tools to practical applications. Mathematics is an obvious example. Mathematics provides a tool to represent our infinitely complex reality into a simple and universal language of measurement. If more kids were taught the problem instead of the tool we would have more scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs willing to dig deeper into the subjects most helpful for a brighter future.
By making teachers the sole arbiters of value...through grading systems bound between 0% and 100% we fail to show our kids that value is subjective, and there is no such thing as perfection. We, the people, are the true arbiters of value, and only by letting our kids share their creations with the world can they learn the meaning of value. Grades are a false representation of success and failure...which is determined by time, effort, and the thousands of iterations necessary to make something useful for the world.
In short...our traditional education system teaches many valuable things. But they also inadvertently teach many complete contradictions to the unique nature of our children and our new technology and creativity-driven economy.
A journalist picked up on the many in which our daughters are using a mix of technology and their own unique talents to create value for others today. The title is, “From Consumers to Creators: How One Parent Leverages Technology for Productivity. The articles focused on their blogs, schools, and apps, but there is an infinitely more important story that needs telling...
All kids are special, and all of them will be happier, learn faster and add more to our world if we only did more in our public schools to listen to who they are and help them connect their unique talents to the real world.
Kids and adults have two things in common:
We like things we are good at.
We don’t generally like being told what to do.
Our daughters have learned to love learning. They teach themselves … and they teach each other. They are excited about new technologies, discovering who they are, and finding ways to share their unique gifts with the world. They are this way because they are human beings...and human beings love to learn when they are given the opportunity.
Honestly, I’m not looking forward to them going back to school, where they will once again be told they are students not teachers, receive identical assignments that are simply thrown away after receiving grades used increasingly to judge instead of communicate. I much prefer having my daughters pursue their passions and sharing them with the world in ways that only became possible since the creation of the internet. They feel the same way...and the more parents I talk to about this the more it seems I am not alone.
We need teachers, and we need schools...but we also need to take this opportunity to seriously rethink our childhood education system. We need to pay our teachers more and reduce class sizes. After that, we need to give our teachers the respect they deserve and show it by giving them the freedom to experiment and freedom to make mistakes. We need to recognize that we no longer live in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, and accept that our best hope for preparing kids in a technology and creativity driven economy will come from empowering our children to listen to their own inner voice.
And if we do that...we will discover...that all of our children...already love to learn.