Learning at Home With Deep Dives

Marco’s in geode heaven at Jeff Smith’s basement outside Pittsburgh.

Two years ago, Marco’s (8) passion was geodes – hollow rocks with crystals inside. Sometimes, it still is, but last year, he also got into the solar system and gardening.

These days, Nico (5) has joined in our deep dives, and it’s World War II, with a little tangent on prison escapes (POW camps and Alcatraz). It looks they’re getting pretty deep into woodworking in the near future, too.

If you just scan these topics – geodes, the solar system, gardening, World War II, prison escapes, and woodworking – you might conclude that my boys are hopping around, skimming the surface of many topics.

Actually, that’s exactly wrong. I take my boys very deeply into their passions – I call these journey’s “deep dives.” Every time we go on a deep dive, I’m fully prepared to go deeper indefinitely, without stopping. I have no plans for a next topic. I’m encouraging my boys to be totally undiversified learners, guided by their passions, not by any sort of checklist.

I’ll tell the geode story to explain how these deep dives play out. Three summers ago, I bought Marco a few of those small geodes you can buy at toy stores. He loved the experience of opening them with me. I put each one inside an old sock and pounded it with a hammer, exposing amethyst crystals inside. He screamed, “When can we buy more geodes?”

I seized that enthusiasm as a learning opportunity for both of us. I looked “geode” up online, finding books, places where they’re mined, and bigger (and more expensive) ones to buy. I bought a few of the books and one much bigger geode. Marco got even more excited, especially about “coconut geodes” from the Chihuahua Desert in Mexico.

So, I researched those geodes in particular, and found that one of the leading experts on these outside of Mexico is a geologist named Jeff Smith who lives in Pittsburgh. That just happens to be where I was born and raised, and I still have lots of family there. So, I contacted Jeff and asked him if we could visit him and his geode collection in Pittsburgh when we were there during summer vacation.

Jeff was very kind and invited us to his home. He showed us a slide show of his trip to a geode mine in Mexico, and then he took us to his basement, which has thousands of geodes in display cases, on workbenches, and in numerous piles. Marco was in absolute heaven! We bought a couple dozen geodes from Jeff, and Marco gave them to every one of his cousins in Pittsburgh, then to many of his friends at our home in northern California.

This past spring, Jeff welcomed Marco, Nico, their cousin Maria, and me to join a group of his friends on a geode hunting expedition in southern Indiana. It was a truly amazing trip for all of us, far more enjoyable than a trip we made to DisneyWorld a few months earlier. For Marco’s part, he got to find geodes – not his beloved coconut geodes, but geodes nonetheless – in a place where they’re naturally formed.

Since then, his enthusiasm for geodes has lost a fair amount of momentum, but he’s turned his passion to other things.

Why do I take my boys on these deep dives rather than, say, enroll them in a few “enrichment” extracurricular activities so they can sprinkle their attention more broadly? I strongly believe that the key to success and happiness in life is the ability – yes, the ability – to find one’s passion and to pursue it without fear. I want my boys to always be deeply in love with learning and doing something.

Just as in romantic love, I suspect that they’ll have a lot of “puppy love” episodes when they’re young. That’s what geodes, the solar system, gardening, etc. are now. They fall as deeply as they can at their tender ages, then they lose that passion in favor of another one.

And what about learning fundamental skills that aren’t directly relevant to their passions? That’s why they go to school. I do believe that school has a legitimate role in their lives, but unfortunately, our society has allowed school to expand its scope and its time demands on our children way too far.

Schools are best equipped to teach children fundamental tools that are complicated to learn, and don’t provide instant gratification. There’s a good reason why a traditional expression for elementary school is “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic.” These are very important skills that the vast majority of kids don’t just pick up on their own.

On the other hand, school isn’t good at igniting a passion for learning, nor does it inspire them to generate creative ideas, nor does it teach them the practical skills they need to get what they want. That’s what our deep dives are for. One of these days, I hope my boys will find a long-term passion that motivates practically all their actions for years or decades. Researchers call this a “sense of purpose.”

That could be World War II. Or woodworking. Or not. Neither they, nor I, is in a hurry. We’re having way too much fun.

While most kids will be shuttled between activities and shopping malls over the next few weeks, we’ll be working hard in our new garage woodshop making Christmas presents there. We’ll make decorative signs with our new Shopbot Desktop, a machine that sort of prints to wood.

In other words, we’ll be modern-day elves, learning tons every day.

Doesn’t this sound like a lot more fun than shopping?

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