He brings up the example of a special-education foster child he’d cared for who was essentially unable to read, but who ended up testing at or above his grade level a year later after a course of home-schooling that consisted of daily reading with help on words he didn’t understand.
And that’s all it takes. Hand out the reading assignment, be available, or have someone else available to examine the essay they write and perhaps send them back to the same material book for another go or two on the same subject. Because tutoring doesn’t teach a discrete body of knowledge as much as it does a skill we don’t hear much about anymore: scholarship. Not simply memorizing some facts about a subject, but examining it from one perspective and then another until you develop a detailed, three-dimensional view of the subject. It’s your month to learn about the Revolutionary War? Read a biography of Washington one day, then in the next Paine or Jefferson, Madison and Adams. Intersperse these books with a personal account of a common soldier, a slave, a parson of the time. Sample some fiction which portrays the period — Drums Along the Mohawk, for example. Some of the short and breezy economic looks about the period like The Timber Economy of New England. Maybe read the newspapers of the time.
Twenty days, twenty books, all of which a student has had to think fairly deeply about because he knows that he has to write about them, and voilà: a child knows more about the Revolutionary period than — not to put too fine a point on it — the average public-school teacher.
He thinks that the prevalence of inexpensive e-readers means that the traditional classroom’s days are numbered, as the easy availability of e-books means that students will be able effortlessly to read themselves into better education.
Because the problem with tutoring has always been the books. A wealthy family might have had a huge, expensive library to draw from, while the peasants never did. Even a middle-class family in America today would be hard-put to sample and then make available 300 different print books for a child every year — three children, 900 books. But now even the meanest family can have the Library of Congress in their pocket, or their child’s backpack. In fact, there isn’t any need to lug a backpack around any longer.
By a strange coincidence, when I was at my parents’ home yesterday opening Christmas presents, I overheard my sister-in-law talking about her own schooling experience. She’d tested so well during middle school that she’d skipped a grade, and attended the last couple of years in the same classes as her 1-year-older sister. But when it was time to enter high school, her mother said, “You’re not going to high school. You’re twelve.” When she asked what she was supposed to do for the next year, her mother said, “Um…play?”
So over the next year, she read and studied on her own. She said that she would go to the public library once a week, check out the ten-book limit, and return them all read by the next week. She taught herself to juggle and learned a number of other interesting things, and was quite well-prepared by the time she went back to school the year after that.
That being said, I think Miniter’s argument is more than a little simplistic. It’s like saying that, now that there are exercise machines, nobody will be obese ever again. Kids have to have either the will to read on their own, or parents who have enough free time that they can make them. For that matter, the availability of books has never been the sole obstacle to self-teaching Miniter makes it out to be, at least since Andrew Carnegie started throwing his money around. You don’t need e-readers to do self-directed reading education—just a good library. My sister-in-law’s school “intermission” proves that.
While I will grant that, from other things I’ve read, Miniter does have a point about the sanitization of history for modern youth, there’s more to school than just sticking your nose in books all day. It’s also where kids pick up important socialization skills—they get experience being around other people, and figure out how to interact with those people. They’re going to have to deal with other people sooner or later when they grow up and get a job, and no book-learning, whether electronic or not, is going to prepare them to face that.
And for that matter, there are plenty of other ways that new e-media technology is going to help make kids’ learning experiences better. I’ve already mentioned the Khan Academy, which can serve up thousands of school lectures on demand as YouTube videos. A parent who was concerned about what “strange nothings” other adults were whispering in his child’s ear could watch the lectures with them and discuss them, as they ought to be doing for any non-educational programming the kid watches anyway. (The Khan Academy seems to be doing pretty well, by the bye; TechCrunch reports the site is now getting 4 million unique visitors per month, up from 1 million at the same time last year.)
I do think there is a place for home-schooling, if parents have the time to do it—especially over summer vacation, to keep kids’ brains from atrophying until it comes time for fall study again. And there are a lot of great tools that can make it easier. But expecting Kindles to “kill off the classroom” is pure hyperbole.