The story of a learner in charge

Leo is an intelligent nine-year-old child who suffers from severe dyslexia. Leo was unable to find a classroom environment that fit his needs. While homeschooling, Leo and his dyslexic brother, Ari, are free to follow their interests in any area they choose.

We developed an environment in which we, as parents-teachers and mentors, guided the children's education to guarantee that they met the basic literacy standards. Beyond the core literacy goals our responsibility was to support Leo and Ari in whatever they wanted to study. In Maker-style education, the student is in charge, while the teacher serves as a facilitator and mentor.

Maker education revolution

Conventional education is struggling to provide the learning environment necessary to help raise the future innovators, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs that advanced societies need. Maker Education offers a model for education in the 21st century.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
— Albert Einstein

In a Maker-style education environment, the learner is in charge of their own learning. What is this like? What is it like for a child to be free to shape his own learning, day in and day out?

Leo is a nine-year-old boy, intelligent and severely dyslexic. Leo is my son.

Leo is having a lot of difficulty in learning how to read. For dyslexic people, symbolic characters (letters) on paper or on a screen are very hard to decode. What to you looks like a perfectly shaped letter, to Leo it looks like a random smudge of ink. Converting the letters of a word into sounds, especially when those same letters produce different sounds when used in different words, is often a psychologically painful experience. For dyslexic people, reading is a constant struggle. Often, by the time Leo finishes reading a small sentence, he has forgotten what the one before it was about. Dyslexic people often suffer from low self-esteem and frustration, the result of being unable to do something that comes naturally to so many other people, and most of their peers at school.

In the US, Australia and the UK, around 25% of the population has dyslexia. In the US alone, this figure represents at least two million students aged from 3 to 21 years old.

Leo was unable to find a school environment that was compatible with his particular learning needs. We enrolled him in several schools, both private and public. Even with a full medical diagnosis of his condition and with the assistance of child psychologists, in every school and regardless of how much the teachers tried, Leo felt like he was not learning anything. He would come home in the afternoon tired and frustrated. His mind, like that of every child, wanted to learn, but his environment was simply not designed to match his needs.

His particular strengths and strong interests were ignored because there was no place for them in any of the schools. There was no class for Minecraft, zoology, and astronomy. Not only was Leo unable to progress in the core curriculum literacy areas of English and mathematics, but he was not able to apply him self on the things that he enjoyed.

Even though Leo is part of the 15% of the population with this specific condition, in his class he was the only diagnosed child. The rest of the class had to move through the curriculum, whether he was ready or not. The schools were not equipped in terms of teacher skills, equipment and classroom design to cater for Leo’s specific needs.

We decided that home schooling was the best option available. It was the only reasonable choice available. We started homeschooling Leo when he was seven years old, along with Leo’s brother, Ari, who is also dyslexic. Our objectives were to remove frustration from the children’s lives, and to restore their love for learning. To achieve that, we designed an environment in which we, as the parents-teachers and mentors, gave a direction of study in which the children cover the basic literacy requirements, especially reading and mathematics. But beyond the basic literacy outcomes, our role was to simply assist Leo and Ari in whatever they choose to learn.

When it comes to basic literacy, we sourced learning materials specifically designed for dyslexic children, and took an evidence-based approach. In small daily doses, the children train in the practical aspects of reading, writing and calculating.

But for the rest of the time that they now had available every day, both children were encouraged to pursue their interests. At seven years of age, Ari has an intense interest in drawing and construction. Ari spends considerable time experimenting with different kinds of paints, markers, pencils and papers, as he creates his elaborate drawings, usually depicting a funny scene from a movie or real life. He often uses Minecraft on his computer to create similar scenes, or scenes from a superhero movie. Ari has also started creating his own videos on his computer, recording his gaming sessions. He said to me that he wants to be a famous “Youtuber”, and outlined his plan for his gaming channel, the types of videos that he will produce, the channel logos, name, and thumbnails. For him, it’s not about “what he wants to be when he grows up”. It’s about what he wants to be now.

Leo has intense interests in life in the medieval times, especially the lives of knights, their armour and weapons. He also has a very strong interest in animals and zoology and in particular dinosaurs. He devours any information he can find on these topics. He prefers video documentaries because of his difficulty in reading, but he now uses a reading pen that automatically converts text to speech. With this technology available to him, the world of books is now widely open. Leo devours audio books and podcasts on science, technology and comedy. He can hold a conversation about the Big Bang, the formation of the solar system, and climate change science with any adult.

Although that we, as their parents, have created the environment that allows them to pursue these paths of learning, they own the directions they move. They decide how much time to spend in an activity, and as long that does not impede normal family life, that is fine with us. They have never, to my recollection, only spend exactly 45 minutes on any activity!

Both children are free to pursue their interests in their particular areas, using any materials available to them: TV documentaries, Internet resources like Wikipedia and YouTube, podcasts, cinema, libraries, zoos, museums, books and magazines.

But they are not simply consumers of information. They are externalising their knowledge by making things. For example, when Leo goes on a bush walk, he takes photos of any small animals, insects or plants that he finds interesting. He he will use the Internet to find out the names of anything he captures in a photo. The pictures that he takes become part of his educational track record, and the best pictures are printed, labelled and sorted inside a physical picture book. Each bush walk is an opportunity for learning, something similar to Aristotle’s Peripatetic school.

Leo’s interest in animals, and in particular dinosaurs, is satisfied by learning as much as he can about them, but also by combining it with his other interests. He has created several triceratops and impressive dinosaur habitats in Minecraft, and is trying to learn how to write Minecraft programs that can spawn virtual dinosaurs in the game.

Leo is also planning to create a robot dinosaur. This has prompted him to start learning programming in the form of Scratch, the visual programming language developed at MIT Media Lab. He also needs to learn about robotics, especially motors, actuators, mechanical levers, joints and rotors. Leo has already created with his first few Scratch programs to control motors and lights, and that is before he can comfortably read.

Ari’s pursuits are similar in intensity and diversity but different in direction. Ari, my younger son, is interested in comedy and his passion is taking him through a natural learning curve that involves watching and listening to comedy scripts, and reading comedy acting books with the help of his parents, audiobooks or his reading pen, and that has resulted in Ari making his own comedy clips. One time, while boarding an international flight at Chicago O’Hare Airport, Ari managed the unthinkable: he stopped one TSA officer from carrying out his duties in a serious and focused way and caused him to roll on the floor, laughing loudly! His impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Terminator is hilarious. Much of this personality is also spilling into his YouTube gaming channel.

Ari’s interest in comedy led him to create involved drawings in which he depicts a comedic scene. He often tells us a joke while using the picture that he made to describe it. Like his brother Leo, Ari is an expert Minecraft maker, and he creates comedy inside his virtual Minecraft world. He especially likes village comedy, in which funny things happen to villagers, their dogs, chickens and cows in a picturesque virtual village.

After watching a few episodes of ventriloquist and stand-up comedian Jeff Dunham and his sidekicks Walter, Ahmed and Jose, Ari now wants to make his own comedy puppet, and call him Einstein. But he wants his puppet to be a human-like robot, which is leading him onto a path of programming and robotics, just like Leo, with an emphasis on artistic expression, unlike Leo’s emphasis on accurate biological simulation.

Ari and Leo’s journeys are very different to each other, despite the fact that they have a similar learning difficulty that prevents them from joining conventional education, live in the same household, with the same parents, and the same learning environment. Their intrinsic interests and passions are different enough to manifest in unique learning paths, that they choose and we, their parents and mentors, facilitate.

Both children show a strong interest in learning as much as they possibly can about the subject that they have chosen, from any source they can find, and then produce their own real-life, concrete creations. These creations are uniquely personal and have never before existed. They embody the children’s current understanding of whatever it is that they are learning.

For us, all this was the unintentional consequence of allowing Leo and Ari the free time to become consumed by their own passions and a flexible environment in which to do it. The paths that they have travelled in pursuit of their passions are unique to them, but the way in which this learning is materialising is common across people, not just children, everywhere.

In Maker-style education, the learner is in charge and the teacher is the facilitator and mentor. It is constructionism.

Interesting readings

Maker Education Revolution

Learning in a high-tech society.

Available in PDF, Mobi, ePub and paperback formats.

Using Maker Education as a model for education in the 21st century, Dr Peter Dalmaris explains how teachers, parents, and learners can apply the educational methods of inventors and innovators for the benefit of their students and children.

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