One problem with the usual approach to education at all levels is that it mostly consists of having someone learn something not because he at the moment has any need to know it but because someone else told him to learn it, possibly on the grounds that the knowledge or skill will be useful at some time in the future. It is much easier to get someone to actually learn something if it is of immediate use to him. The best way of learning a computer language, in my view, is not to start by working your way through the manual but to start with a program you want to write. You then have an immediate incentive to learn what you need to write it, and immediate feedback as to whether you have succeeded.
That approach works in a wide variety of other contexts. When my home schooled son was about eleven or twelve, he was running a weekly D&D game for a group of other home schooled kids. It was good training in responsibility. Each week, when the other players showed up, he had to have already done all of the work of preparing that week's session—otherwise the game, his project, would fail. Each week he did. It was, I think, better training than if he had been a student with homework due on a regular schedule. The homework would have been someone else's requirement, with no justification other than someone else's orders. This was his project—and it was obvious what he had to do to make it work.
Suppose you are a comfortably well off parent. Almost everything your child wants—toys, books, games—is available to be bought at what is, in terms of your income, a trivial cost. That makes it hard to do a believable job of teaching your child the importance of saving, of deciding which things he really wants and which he can do without, skills that he will need, as an adult, to function in a world of limited resources.
If your child plays World of Warcraft, he will learn the relevant lesson with no need for you to impose arbitrary limits. He will have a limited amount of gold and a considerable variety of things he would like to spend it on. Increasing that amount will require him to spend time doing daily quests, figuring out what he can craft and sell at a profit and crafting and selling it, or perhaps, if he is a mage, running a magical taxi service teleporting other characters hither and yon for pay. Whatever his effort, he will probably not end up with enough gold to buy everything he wants. Here again, the lesson works because it is, in its own odd way, real. These are the things he has to do in order to achieve the objectives he has himself chosen.
I was reminded of the same point today in a very different context. At lunch there was a talk on the Northern California Innocence Project
, which is run out of, and largely staffed by, the law school I teach at. The purpose of the project is to identify people who have been convicted of crimes they did not commit and get their verdicts reversed and them released. While the project involves some lawyers and at least one faculty member, a lot of the work is done by law school students. Seen from one side, the purpose is to get innocents out of prison. Seen from the other, it is to help educate our students.
Considered as education, it is a strikingly successful example of the approach I have been discussing. The students are learning legal skills, how to interview witnesses, convince judges, prosecutors, juries, file the right paperwork, make the right legal arguments. They are learning those skills not because someone else has told them they will need them five years from now to do the work someone then will pay them to do, but because they need the skills now to do something they very much want to do, to right a wrong, to rescue someone unjustly imprisoned.
Pretty clearly, it works.