Teaching Children for the Future

In my role as educator, parents sometimes ask me what I think about some educational program or activity. Instead of speaking to any one program, I’d rather detail behaviors that have, observationally, predicted success in students at DevBootcamp and the Flatiron School. If an educational program builds deep, consistent depth in the five listed capabilities, it is “good” and merits consistent, large investment.

Caveat I feign no scientific rigor for these observations. Attendees at the schools were / are are assuredly non-representative of the general population. Additionally, my assessment of their educational background is based on inferences made from in-person interviews, work product, examinations, etc.

In my experiences to date, the biggest signals that predict success for students are:

  1. A pre-existing ability to stick with reading challenging material without moving
  2. A pre-existing strategy for “how to study”
  3. A pre-existing respect and capacity for memorization and drilling
  4. A pre-existing willingness to be boldly wrong
  5. A pre-existing willingness to imagine the solution before looking to see if it exists

An ethnic school activity really crushes these five (Hebrew School, Chinese School). Chess camp might well cover many of these as well. Piano lessons also strike me as a pretty good winner as well.

Aside: It’s not really and surprise that a bar mitzvah requires all of these (ceremonially, at the least) because these capacities are the capacities of one who can care for himself and others i.e. “be a man.”

Among these disciplines, some probably have a quantitative edge, but as long as the student engages with discipline in disciplines, i.e. process, they will have a massive edge versus those who have not engaged in such a way.

Additionally, I think the student (child, preferably) should be engaged with the idea that they’re learning a process that is applicable in many contexts. Engage them with the idea that how they think can be “thunk” about.

But how to teach learners, students, children, to build these capabilities? I have some recommendations after the jump.

No Bored Time → Screen Time

I’m borderline sickened by it when I look about the subway and I see hours of attention being poured into games involving…candy? Flashing lights, casino sound effects, and human weakness for lights and alerts have been weaponized to put a slot-machine with all of its attendant depravity and prodigality in every pocket.

And should one manage to avoid being seduced by these, And the “apps” e.g. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, are all only slightly enriched versions of the slot-machine interfaces.

You are wasting your time.

Now that’s some strong medicine and it’s natural to be resistant to this claim. I don’t blame the parents of today for being ill-prepared for the million dollar industry that would fight to steal and erode their capacity for attention. However, we do have to stop passing the problem onward.

Adults of today, raised without antibodies to resist these electronic drugs, moved around 2006 to replace any free gap time for time to do shallow computing endeavors. Waiting for a bus: distraction media. On the toilet: distraction media. On the subway: distraction media.

These habits, these guilty (I hope) indulgences, kids are learning, emulating, and integrating to their detriment.

Parents: You must put your fucking phone down. You must not use it as a baby-sitter or a pacifier. Kids must learn to self-soothe their boredom. Permit them to carry a book or even an e-book reader (something with an active mental component). But you cannot model that encountering boredom or difficulty is resolved by directing attention into the portable distraction box. Doing so models that [“The Shallows”][ts] are more valuable than [“Deep Work”][dw].

I’m squarely in the Screen Time: Not One Swipe camp. Honestly, I’m an advocate for no smartphone until 14, like Bill Gates. It should be a giant red flag that those who build the companies that sell this sort of brain-rot do not serve it up to their own kids.

Counter arguments:

  • But they see their parents do it! And that’s why we encourage youth experimentation with sex and alcohol, right?
  • They’ll be a social freak unless we inculcate / teach them! Rest assured, the fruits of capitalism will happily ensure that the billions of dollars they spend to get eyeballs will train up your late-bloomer
  • Emergencies! OK! I agree! Get them a phone with text messaging that sleeps in your room when they’re home
  • Everything in moderation. Nope, not for me. You are literally fighting a billion-dollar industry that is winner-take-all for attention. You might have the discipline (maybe) but it’s not fair to expect a human that might well fail the marshmallow test (i.e. a child) to resist the combined marketing desires of Silicon Valley and Wall Street
  • You hypocrite! You teach people to code! Yes, I want kids to code, sure. But to do this they must work at a computer. They must choose to invest their time here. If they need to write reports, research, code, etc. they need a (monitored) browser and to be taught how to accomplish work in a computer. I’m less against “screen time” than “bored-therefore-screen” time

I’d be less draconian except that as the neuroplasticity of the mind shrinks, it’s harder to do “deep work.” So you stay more shallow. You get shallower. You stay shallow. You get to the point of only being able to do 5 minute stretches of deep work. I have seen students on campuses who literally cannot go longer than 15 minutes without doing a phone pick-up. That’s not the bar required to reap the economic rewards in a world that requires “Deep Work.”

Not only does the portable screen make the neuroplasticity more shallow it also seem to have the power to make children’s imaginations shallower. I saw something the other day in the pizza parlor on the Westside. Two young tween girls were acting up and their mother confiscated their phones (Go, Mom!). The young women complained loudly. But afterward they did something staggering. They picked up some boxes (raisins?) out of their shopping bag and proceeded to use them like phones. There they were swiping, scrolling, and ignoring one another like their portable screen had taught them to do.

Imagine a cognitive furrow so deep that a using a “dead” simulacrum of the reward-device to poorly mimic the reward circuit was preferable to the alternatives (watch pizza get made, pick your slice, look around, be present with mom and grandma).

If you want to give your child every advantage, the ability to focus is a competition killer.

Provide Instruction in How to Study

It’s clear to me that many schools are not teaching students how to study.

Studying is encountering materials that create laboratory experiments that you “play through” in your mind. Through encountering enough of these you acquire the ability to create new, hitherto unseen experiments. If you’ve grasped the rules of the laboratory, you should be able to predict the behaviors of new interactions within the laboratory. You should then be able to confirm / “mark wrong” your projection. Through this iterative process, you come to integrate others’ models into your own and gain the ability to discuss, compare, and synthesize in a field.

Many students who struggle in the early phases of the educational experiences I’ve provided, lacked this bit of meta-knowledge. When I revealed it to them, they were surprised and thankful.

Oy vey.

I had to wonder how they had made it this many years without that insight! How baffling the world must have seemed to them to that point.

Per my recent interests in Shorthand, I found this YouTube video. The second video, prepared by Howard Wallace, is not about letters, or phrases, or certain shorthand principles…it was…how to study.

Mr. Wallace here is clearly teaching how to study. Ensure that this practice of building “games” for oneself to pass is something your student has capability with before high school. For maximal payoff, stress mastery earlier.

Drilling and Doing the Push-Ups

If you want to punch: do push-ups If you want to type: do speed drills If you want to play piano: do the drills If you want to play guitar: do the chord drills and sale If you want to do calligraphy: practice graceful curves

Because American media is in the thrall of the cult of the lone genius, we like to suppose that “smart people” quote-get-quote things just by reading them. “Smart people” read the book and, that’s it, violà they “get” the chemistry idea.

But this myth is destructive. Students, aspiring to be “smart” people, feign and emulate confident ignorance (more on that below), while privately being stumped and labeling themselves as poseur interlopers internally. Focus on learning the drills, doing them with dedication and quality because they’re tractable, measurable small goals. Attaining them will assuredly roll up to the feeling of mastery when approaching more abstract demonstrations.

Expose Ignorance Freely

“I may be ignorant Doo, but I ain’t stupid” — Sissy Spacek in “A Coalminer’s Daughter”

As part of doing drills, student should feel encouraged to state their answer. Because being correct is so valued in our society (like “being smart,” above) students are unwilling to get the answer wrong in low-stakes situations and it leads them to getting the answer wrong in high-stakes situations, permanently.

There’s no shame in being ignorant. Students who have let go of the shame of being wrong move more rapidly to the state of being right and maintain their curiosity.

Embrace Ambiguity

A final tip is that students should be able to handle questions without clear-cut answers; heck, questions without answers entirely. Many novice programmers engage in an anti-pattern where, when they have a problem, they immediately plug it into a search engine and look at the prior art.

This is a mistake.

Einstein once said that “imagination was more important than intelligence.” I believe what he meant by this was: we will encounter unimaginable challenges ahead because we are so ignorant we can’t even imagine their existence. As such, when we move into unknown intellectual territories, explorers must be able to ask: What might a solution to this problem be like?”

In a metaphor, they have to be able to imagine the shape of the hole before they start looking for the jigsaw piece (also a good activity!) that goes there. If they can imagine the shape, and recognize the context they can start applying additional winnowing algorithms:

  • The hole would have to go in the “sky” part of the puzzle: eliminate all grass and mountain pieces
  • The hole is big at the bottom and more vertically oriented, orient all remaining pieces to vertical
  • etc.

A lot of ink has been spilled about “helicopter parenting” undermining children’s success. In many ways, I think one of the most dangerous patterns spread by helicopter parenting is that wrong answers or unclear answers are not acceptable answers. Sometimes there aren’t right answers, or maybe there are and we don’t know them, but we can put in something that’s decent and carry on anyway. I’ve seen many students balk and stall unwilling to type anything because they’re not sure what the answer is before they start demonstrating an idea that might be wrong (see above).

Sometimes ambiguous is not the best, but it’s certainly more than nothing. Put in a scaffold, a bad version, a prototype, and learn more about the whole system. Doing so will give you the insight to update your description of the unresolvable.

What about Mathematics?

Some types of programming require advanced mathematics-knowledge to do the work. Video game graphics? You better know the heck out of trigonometry. Working in science or financial modeling: better know your differential equations. Want a computer science degree? Well since it is a science just like biology or physics, numbers is the language of expression in the field. Therefore, no surprise, math capability helps.

However. Many great programmers are quite average with mathematics and it doesn’t hinder their careers. At some point, it might be the difference between earning strata or getting a job at one of the biggest employers (Facebook, Google, Amazon), but it’s not the silver bullet.

Earlier I used “mathematics-knowledge.” This neologism is meant to represent the “I can do vector calculus” versus “I can do the process of doing all math work:” or, “mathematics-process.” This latter skill is immensely predictive of programming success and emerges by practicing the aforementioned behaviors. It turns out that students who study math or hard science develop “mathematics-process” while gaining their “mathematics-knowledge” and concidentally find it easy to learn programming because “mathematics-process” is their ally.


Ultimately, my recommendations are that we provide to students, before they enter a phase of life where they must learn without parental / social support, opportunities to cultivate their capacity for Deep Work. Doing so will provide to them the economic, social, and health benefit of a life where they avoid The Shallows.