When I was growing up, many of my friends had TVs in their room but I had an encyclopedia. My grandparents gave me an old copy of an encyclopedia from the 1970s as a gift. The encyclopedia sat next to my bed in a large wooden case about three feet long. There were 22 volumes (rather than 26) because some letters shared a volume. At night prior to going to sleep I’d read and re-read the encyclopedia. It introduced many ideas that 12 year olds typically didn’t get to learn about including poverty, plate tectonics, Julius Caesar, communism, sexual reproduction, genocide, Charles Darwin and Sweden.
The challenging part about these books was that the ideas were displayed alphabetically rather than chronologically. Reading about the Boer War followed by Neils Bohr made it difficult to associate related concepts because related concepts rarely follow alphabetical order.
Fortunately, I had other possessions besides the encyclopedia. Beside my bedroom was my dad’s office and he had a computer. When I was seven years old we got our first computer. My dad introduced me to the internet (remember the AOL dial up sound?) and computer games. We enjoyed playing games like King’s Quest V, VI and VII together and if I was well behaved he’d let me kill Nazi’s in Wolfenstein (perhaps that inspired Inglorious Bastards?).
Aside from adventure games, he also bought me learning games. These games were chronological and considerately ordered to be both entertaining and educational. One game might take you to Rome, and introduce you to a variety of aspects of ancient life from aqueducts, gladiatorial combat, slavery, emancipation, republic, dictatorship and crop rotation. These games could be played again and again without cost, for a slow learner this was a helpful (asking teachers to repeat information in class carries costs). When I tired of ancient Rome, I’d transition to a science game and learn about a 1 sided object like a Mobius Band.
Today, Salman Kahn at Kahn Academy has made great progress creating an online learning environment where students can begin with counting and end with linear algebra. Rather than having to wait years if they want to learn at a faster rate than their teacher or having to ask the teacher to repeat material and irk their classmates that don’t need or want to hear the material again, they can rewind. Once you watch a few of Sal’s lessons you’ll realize he is in the top 1% of all teachers. The notion that we have any teacher outside of the top 1% of lecturers lecturing to students when they could be spending their time with Sal will likely be seen by future generations as child abuse.
One day I expect our schools to look something like this, but until then at least we have Sal.