Learning in Real Life

Please send me stories about learning in real life and how people find work worth doing without conventional schooling.

A "Chaotic Curriculum" As a Child Creates a Director of the National Institutes of Health

Dr. Francis Collins talks about his unique education as a child and how it gave him a love of learning that drove him to become a scientist. This is a C-SPAN interview but the page also has a complete transcript if you prefer to read the interview. Here are some quotes:


"A remarkable woman who had a master's degree from Yale, which is where she met my father when he was getting his PhD and she was unusual in being in graduate school at Yale in the 1930s. she decided that her four sons, I'm the youngest of those four, would be better served by her educational methods than by various public schools as the family traveled between North Carolina and Long Island and Virginia. And she was right, she was remarkably gifted in providing that spark that you really want to see education represent of the level of learning. And I learned to love learning because of the way she introduced me to topics. It was very chaotic, I must say.

" . . It was totally unpredictable. There was no lesson plan, there was certainly no curriculum standards, my mother would basically say, OK, what's interesting today? And some days it would be mathematics and we might do only mathematics for three days in a row because it was interesting. And then we'll sort of get tiresome and she will say, well, let's talk about history. Here, let's see this, let's talk about the significance of that event was. She was a playwright, she also was very interested in languages. We did a lot of sort of studying of languages and she would say, OK, here's a word, do you think that's derived from Greek or older French or Latin? And after a while, I got pretty good at that. And then we'll go to the (under bridge) dictionary and look at that and see what the answer was."

"Wondering What Happened to Your Class Valedictorian? Not Much, Research Shows."

This article is surprisingly blunt about how schools largely reward conformity. The researcher from Boston College whose work is featured notes, “Valedictorians aren’t likely to be the future’s visionaries . . . they typically settle into the system instead of shaking it up.”

Self-Taught Saxophone Great

The tenor saxophone icon George Coleman has influenced generations of musicians. Reflecting on his life and historic music sessions, Jazz Times (Sept. 2016) reports: “Coleman began his journey in Memphis, Tenn., in 1935. He took up alto and was already gigging as a teenager with B.B. King in the early ‘50s. He learned basic music theory in high school but was essentially self-taught: for knowledge, he turned to Memphis musicians such as arranger Ozzie Horne, piano modernist Bob Tally and stride pianist Eugene Barlow, among others. “The stuff that guys were learning at Berklee,” says Coleman, “I knew when I was about 17 or 18 years old.”

Learning in Spite of School

This story reminds me of a favorite quote of John Holt's. It is from a poem by William Blake, "Blight never does good to a tree … but if it still bear fruit, let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.”

Astrophysicist and celebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson was invited to give a commencement address at his elementary school but refused. In a New Yorker profile, he recalled telling the administration:

"I am where I am not because of what happened in school but in spite of it, and it probably is not what you want me to say. Call me back, and I will address your teachers and give them a piece of my mind." A more important education came from his parents … Tyson’s mother gave him a pair of folding opera glasses, which provided his first magnified look at the night sky. In middle school, he bought a telescope with money that he earned by walking neighbors’ dogs—"It was the golden age of dog walking, because you didn’t have to lean up after them," he recalls—and studied the sky from the roof of his apartment building. In his bedroom, he arranged glow-in-the-dark stars in the shape of constellations.

Seven Famous Architectural Dropouts and Autodidacts

Seven informative portraits of famous architects with no conventional credentials but a driving passion to bring their visions to life. The people portrayed are Tadao Ando, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Louis Sullivan, Eileen Gray, Buckminster Fuller, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, aka Le Corbusier, and Frank Lloyd Wright.