I did not grow up on a farm, so I’m constantly marveling at how different my kids’ childhood is from mine. It’s like they are growing up in another country.

Kids learn by disintermediating adults
We typically hear about disintermediation when we talk about the Internet. For example, the online travel industry disintermediated travel agents and now we book travel directly with airlines.

The next wave of education will disintermediate teachers. Because schools occupy similar territory today that travel agencies occupied in 1998.

I remember that all my interactions with nature were mediated by an adult. The camp counselor who taught us how to build a fire. The biology teacher who told us how to dissect a frog. I was so rarely left to my own devices in nature, yet I’ve always known I loved nature.

My kids go out to our forest and do whatever they want. Sometimes I am close by, sometimes they go alone. Either way, though, I find myself thinking about un-mediated learning experiences, those where the child works directly to discover things on his own. Those are the experiences that are so fulfilling to their self-esteem.

And all this thinking made me do some research about what learning experience are most effective. And telling kids what to learn doesn’t work, because everyone learns whatever is most meaningful in the moment.

Lecturing doesn’t work.
Kids retain the most knowledge by doing rather than listening. Which means that lecturing is one of the most ineffective ways to convey information.

A study from the National Training Laboratories in 2000 found that only about 5 percent of the information delivered through lecture was retained. Compare that with retention rates at 50 percent for discussion groups and 70 percent for practice-by-doing. Even higher, at 80 percent, was retention by students teaching others.

However, it’s unclear how to let middle school and high school kids do hands-on learning in a classroom situation. And it’s even more difficult to approach that problem when you consider that kids learn best when they choose what to learn. Self-directed hands-on learning? That means outside the traditional classroom. There simply aren’t enough resources in a school to allow one teacher to handle even 20 kids learning like this simultaneously.

Telling kids how to live doesn’t work. 
Doing hands-on learning for big life decisions is a little more difficult. It’s important, for example, to make sure both parties give consent before sex, but lecturing to kids about the importance of this is making little practical impact on college campuses.

However the axiom “show don’t tell” seems to apply well when it comes to learning how to make important life choices. It turns out that the MTV’s teen mom reality shows have done more to decrease teen birth rates than decades of federal policy. Because the shows are engaging and they tell a story instead of lecturing to kids.

These finding shouldn’t surprise us because adults learn from stories, not lectures as well. Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, is a compendium of research (and stories) of why successful changes in consumer habits come from memorable tales.

Bottom line: Kids and adults learn fastest from similar methods, and neither learn best when they are locked up for lectures, eight hours a day.