Letter to a young learner

After a lifetime of being a student of my mother‘s — she was a gifted teacher who stoutly defended my right to color outside the lines — and ten years of teaching students at UC Berkeley and Stanford — I was rewarded by being able to recognize an important student when she came along. She is twelve. While she is bright in school, her interests are not those of her schoolmates or teachers. I work closely with her mother on planning some work with her during the summer and after school once a week. We’re starting with “A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe,” because it offers a more compelling and interdisciplinary narrative about the magic of numbers and geometric shapes than her seventh grade math books, and because it takes an active approach — the diligent learner can construct the important geometric figures with compass and straightedge. When she comes for a lesson, I use the passages she has underlined as jumping-off places for conversations. I asked her to reflect on her first four weeks of working on the texts, exercises, and conversations with me. She came back with four succinct summaries of the factual nuggets from the chapter we covered each week. At the end of her last note was “ideas spiral out of minds.” I asked her what she wanted to learn from me. She said “everything.” I said: “That’s fine, but I want you to stop expecting me to deliver it to you. You need to start taking some responsibility by coming up with questions for me.”

I wrote this for her:


About learning to learn – and excelling at school without being warped by it.


I know that much of school seems unfulfilling to you at times and that you also know you need to succeed at it on school’s terms in order to keep your future open for educational opportunities. The seventh and eighth grades are particularly important in terms of getting good grades. So let’s start by acknowledging that whatever else happens, right now the main goal is succeeding in school on school’s terms.


However, I’m sure you know that the universe is larger and less boring than the form they feed it to you at school, and that the popular interests of the majority of students are not necessarily the best example of a fulfilling life for a curious and creative mind.


It’s important for you to continue work on your ability to learn independently in addition to the kind of learning that your school wants you to do.


Your school has to teach many children of varied ability and teachers these days are nervous about how well their students will do on standardized tests. So they require compliance (sit at your desk, raise your hand to speak, move when the bell rings) and passivity (take notes and pass tests) from most students most of the time. And students are given to believe that the job of teachers is to authoritatively deliver bodies of knowledge to students – you can trust that the teacher knows the subject and transfers that knowledge to students who listen, answer, take notes and tests, work exercises. This is a perfectly legitimate form of learning. The important thing for you to know that this is neither the only nor the most important form of learning you need to get better at. And that has to do with you taking your responsibility as a learner – not just as a student.


How do you learn to learn? How did you learn the skills you most value? What did you do on your part to fulfill your curiosity, to come to understand something that you learned because it interested you, not because it was required?


I know that you already know that if you can think clearly about an idea, test it by talking about it with those you trust, and resolve to devote yourself to it – from glue art to poetry to dreaming up mechanisms – it can become real. Remember that we talked about what “manifest” and “manifestation” mean? The more you know about something, the more clearly you understand how it works, the more detailed your word or image pictures, the more you think about it, the better you are able to manifest that knowledge. It’s a process that very often starts with “I wonder…”




Use knowledge-seeking skills to learn from people, books and search engines.

Question your assumptions. What if you are wrong? How does it look from the opposite perspective from yours? How do you know that information you find is accurate?

Think about it.


Create conversations.


You already do all these things. All you need to do is to realize that these are part of what you already know about learning.


Now to exercise your independent learning abilities, I want you to do two things: reflect on what you are learning when we are together and when you are working through the text, and to begin to take some control of this learning by thinking of questions for me.


Your first reflection – about ideas spiraling out of the mind – is profound. I expect the profound from you, as do all who know you. It’s too late to back away from that. How did you arrive at that reflection? Notice that you had written four notes and it was at the end of the last note. The notes are important if they help you learn. They are good to go back to and review. They are only the seeds of reflections. They are not the reflections themselves. A reflection is when you hold the note up in the mirror of your mind and consider all the facets: “What does this mean to me?” “What does this mean in the context of my family, my community, America, the world, the universe?” “How would this look to an ancient Greek or an anthropologist from Mars?” And then, while you are turning the little nuggets of fact in your notes around and around in your mind and looking at it from all angles, you will become more and more aware of how to manifest a new idea that is not to be found solely in the notes. In this case, that idea was about ideas spiraling out of minds.


Go deeper. What does “spiraling out of minds” mean? Reflect on that. Why spiraling? What is “out”? Out to where? What does that look like when you zoom out further and look at ideas spiraling out of many minds?


You already do this. It’s where your poetry comes from. It’s also an essential skill for independent learning — a skill that you can improve through conscious practice. When you take it upon yourself to learn something and make the effort to study it, think about it, ask questions about it, draw sketches, take notes, you are not just learning about how to make skulls light up or draw geometric figures with a compass, you are learning how to be a better learner.


We’ve been spinning off conversations from the passages you underline in “Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe,” and we can continue to do that, but I want you to take this to the next level by first making reflections on one or more of your notes or underlined passages, then formulating questions to pose to me about your reflections.