The SketchUp Conundrum

On Saturday afternoon Oliver asked me for some help getting Google SketchUp installed on his computer. He needed to do some building design work, and he’d decided that SketchUp was the tool for the job.

We got the program installed, watched the New to Google SketchUp tutorial video together, and then I ran through a couple of other features with him, like how to import other people’s creations from the 3D Warehouse.

Then he was on his own.

When I came back a few hours later he’d constructed a hotel-spa-restaurant-radio station complex of considerable complexity. Such is both the simplicity of SketchUp and the power of Oliver’s iterative learning style.

This morning Oliver woke me up at 7:00 a.m. and asked how he could retrieve the files he’d saved on the weekend and I told him about File | Open Recent and went back to sleep.

When I rumbled downstairs an hour later for the walk up to school, Oliver was in quite a state, having decided that he would rather stay home all day continuing to refine his buildings – he told me later he was working on a model of his school – and it took all of our parental superpowers – “hey, isn’t it gym day today!” – to retrieve a mood sufficient to normal routine to proceed.

And there’s the conundrum.

Oliver’s now at school, which he generally enjoys, and is likely immersed in some sort of project carefully designed by his teachers to artificially stimulate his interest. This will likely succeed to some degree, as Oliver likes learning and is generally a pliable child.

But no matter what heights of educational greatness they manage to achieve at the school, they will, I’m sure, fail to reach the place that Oliver was at this morning at 8:00 a.m. when all he wanted to do was design a building.

We parents can rationalize ripping him away from this with high-minded broad strokes about how kids need to “learn to follow a routine” and that they “can’t always do what they want” (read “look, I gotta go to work and I can’t look after you all day”).

But it still seems like a failure and like a part of a larger plan to inculcate Oliver in a system that is designed to train him to dampen his passions and disconnect learning from curiousity.

How did we get here?


Joshua Biggley's picture
Joshua Biggley on September 20, 2010 - 15:19 Permalink

This theme seems to be spinning through the various circles of friends and acquintances with whom I interact. I don’t have a sufficient answer for you, other than to be a part of the growing voice that is demanding a change in education.

Or, as @DaveWordsWords and his wife do, you can homeschool, which allows one to fully induldge the curiousities of children, but does place both the educational and childcare burden squarely on the shoulders of, what might be, an income earning adult in the home.

Perhaps the coming movie, Waiting for Superman, will help all of us to refine and articulate our desires for our children when we communicate with our respective schools.

I’ll continue to follow along with great interest and with the hope that we can find an answer sooner rather than later.

A parting idea: What about charter schools in PEI with portable funding linked to each child?

Johnny Rukavina's picture
Johnny Rukavina on September 20, 2010 - 15:27 Permalink

I think you’re assuming that Oliver is just like you, and this isn’t fair to him. Some people benefit from following a routine and often its something that needs to be learned.

Ann Thurlow's picture
Ann Thurlow on September 20, 2010 - 15:39 Permalink

I think your use of the word “artificially” to modify stimulate betrays your prejudice. Maybe he will also become interested in something he knew nothing about as a result of today’s lesson. Maybe learning math will help him to design an actual building some day. Maybe he’ll learn about time zones and what the rotation of the earth around the sun actually means. It’s nice to develop one’s interests, but it’s also nice to have an eclectic mind and to be exposed to many things.

Johnny Rukavina's picture
Johnny Rukavina on September 20, 2010 - 15:40 Permalink

A topical take on education reform here.

Tim's picture
Tim on September 20, 2010 - 17:11 Permalink

Thanks for the post. My 12 yo has just started grade 7. For the last two weeks school has become almost entirely an exercise in learning how to be on time, with the right textbooks and notebooks. It is clear that grade 7-8 is primarily about learning to be a student and not about learning.

Although I have an educational philosophy that disagrees with this approach, I am now completely complicit in it. My main task is to make sure he leaves the house on time with the right equipment.

Dave's picture
Dave on September 20, 2010 - 17:18 Permalink

I don’t understand why you don’t think he’ll learn those things while developing his own interests. If he’s truly interested, he’ll pursue the information that will help him better understand and expand his knowledge, and maybe that includes time zones, and the rotation of the Earth.

Dave's picture
Dave on September 20, 2010 - 17:19 Permalink

Mine was a response to Ann’s comment, by the way.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on September 20, 2010 - 17:30 Permalink

Thanks everyone for insights.

I’m less inclined than I once was to view this as a “systemic problem.” Or rather I recognize that it is as systemic problem but that, at least in Oliver’s life as a student, the system is going to remain pretty much the same as it ever was.

I’m much more inclined to search for targeted micro-actions that can smooth out the rough spots; it occurs to me, for example, that a set of “get out of school free” cards might be a useful pressure release valve for situations like this.

As to routine: well, routine is evil. That’s a core belief of mine, and it’s almost impossible to raise a child without passing that on. It’s like belief in air for me.

(As I write this I realize that there is considerable opportunity for “but you are the person with the strictest routines I know” comments; that is true).

Dan James's picture
Dan James on September 20, 2010 - 19:12 Permalink

Just a thought: It might be helpful to share with Oliver’s teacher(s) that he’s really into designing buildings right now.


Maybe you could organize a field trip for his class to an architect’s office and tour a building (Jean Canfield?). Maybe invite an architect into his class to speak.


Request to his teachers that he do a special project on building design that he could use for class credit or something to that affect.

Johnny Rukavina's picture
Johnny Rukavina on September 20, 2010 - 19:43 Permalink

RE: “Routine is evil”. This is ridiculous, narrow-minded and intolerant. Your core belief is predicated on the notion that everyone’s mind works like yours. Routines are demonstrated to be comforting for those on the autistic spectrum and with intellectual disabilities.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on September 20, 2010 - 20:09 Permalink

I think everyone’s core beliefs are based on the notion that everyone’s mind works like theirs.

Ann Thurlow's picture
Ann Thurlow on September 20, 2010 - 20:17 Permalink

I think that Oliver’s interest in architecture should by encouraged by his family at home.
If his classroom is like most others today, it contains kids who can’t speak English, kids who have special needs, kids who are lazy and kids who are smart. And a teacher who must measure conflicting needs all the time. Will that environment give Oliver everything he needs? Of course not. But it will give him something including the very valuable lesson that sometimes we have to put our own interests aside or the greater good.
He is not deprived of a chance to use SketchUp. And he is being given the chance to develop other skills and interests, too.

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on September 20, 2010 - 20:17 Permalink

(which probably explains why so much of the world is ridiculous, narrow-minded and intolerant)

Robert Paterson's picture
Robert Paterson on September 20, 2010 - 21:58 Permalink

Passion is the gateway — how great though that Oliver found this — my son James found his love for drawing at about the same age — it transformed his life — it enabled him to leave school aged 14 and focus only on art. Of course he is more literate and can tackle higher order maths than most people too. All a product of living his passion

Chuck's picture
Chuck on September 21, 2010 - 04:46 Permalink

Peter, you must know John Gatto’s statement on this? (Sorry; I can’t figure out how to blockquote here):

The first lesson I teach is confusion. Everything I teach is out of context… I teach the unrelating of everything. I teach disconnections. I teach too much: the orbiting of planets, the law of large numbers, slavery, adjectives, architectural drawing, dance, gymnasium, choral singing, assemblies, surprise guests, fire drills, computer languages, parent’s nights, staff-development days, pull-out programs, guidance with strangers you may never see again, standardized tests, age-segregation unlike anything seen in the outside world… what do any of these things have to do with each other?

Even in the best schools a close examination of curriculum and its sequences turns up a lack of coherence, full of internal contradictions. […] The logic of the school-mind is that it is better to leave school with a tool kit of superficial jargon derived from economics, sociology, natural science and so on than to leave with one genuine enthusiasm.”

From The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher, his acceptance-cum-resignation speech when he was awarded New York State Teacher of the Year.

That’s a big reason why we homeschool. We believe, as Ann stated, that our kids should “be exposed to many things,” however superficially, so we follow a fairly structured curriculum. But as homeschooling requires fewer hours than does a public school classroom, it leaves our kids with more time to pursue their own interests, or even just more time to play.

Kevin's picture
Kevin on September 23, 2010 - 02:34 Permalink

Speaking as an autistic the point about routine is not quite accurate from my perspective. I’m inclined to agree with both of you in that Peter is right that routine will rot your soul (presumably: if it is allowed to clobber those bits of life that define you), and ~predictability~ is essential to spiritual comfort in any moment for me; routine is only one way of achieving that and my gluttony for experience denies me any commerce with routine beyond the very essential.

Leah Tremain's picture
Leah Tremain on September 24, 2010 - 17:43 Permalink

It feels like a change is coming in the school system A change that would allow more self-direction, exploration of individual’s interests and technology based learning. I think it will happen slowly but at some point schools will be forced to change as their current methods become more obviously outdated and archaic:
<li>Summer holidays! So the children can go home and work the farm!
<li>15min Recess, 1 hour lunch! Ready for the factory schedule!
<li>A blackboard! Revolutionary technology rocking the school system since 1801!
<li>Routine and schedule! Industry, we are ready!
<li> Teacher as ultimate authority! Yes, we will submit to the bossman!

Here is a quick news release about thinking of the future of schools in your province:…

The Faculty of Education at UVic and Queens no longer places an emphasis on provincial test scores for entry because the system of provincial testing is so misguided (unverified).

The BC government (again, unverified — but from a good source) are looking at new learning systems (more self-directed, participatory, technology-based, inquiry-based) not based on the system as it is now.

A consortium of School Districts on Vancouver Island brought Sir Ken Robinson in to speak about the future of schools. Here’s a link to his Ted talk…

Bring on the learning revolution! Please?

Oliver's picture
Oliver on September 25, 2010 - 19:25 Permalink

The great thing that school has to offer—pedagogically, the thing that most helped and motivated me—is the possibility of “team learning,” or working with other kids to solve a problem. Traditionally it’s not what school is about, but it seems a common element of many so-called progressive or alternative school curricula, and home schooling doesn’t seem able to provide much in this mode. Maybe even more importantly, kids are going to acquire a view of what it means to be a citizen and society member come what may, and although one may not like what schools inculcate traditionally—that we are to sit still, obey a boss and privately compete against our peers, it’s not as if homeschooling were the exact opposite in that regard, or that homeschooled kids will come to no view whatsoever. Socializing children is not something people can or should want to abdicate, if they know what’s good for them.

Chuck's picture
Chuck on September 26, 2010 - 00:15 Permalink

Oliver, I agree about the value of learning to work in teams. Some of that can be learned elsewhere: sports, choir, Cubs/Brownies, Junior Achievement, etc. However, I think you’re right that school could provide better opportunities in this regard, and that if they did, homeschool might be sub-optimal by comparison.

On the other hand, asking a homeschooling parent “What about socialization?” is like asking a vegetarian “What about protein?” That is to say, it can be a problem if you’re not careful about it, but for anyone even halfway conscientious, it’s been a solved problem for a loooong time.

Oliver's picture
Oliver on September 26, 2010 - 17:28 Permalink

Chuck—fair enough, and I’m sure you’re right. I didn’t mean to suggest homeschoolers abdicated or didn’t think about socializing.

shane bryanton's picture
shane bryanton on September 28, 2010 - 15:41 Permalink

Let’s all remember that public schooling however restrictive, stifling and soul destroying it may be is in the main a great public good. It was not so long ago in terms of human civlization (200 years? ) that the vast majority of people were iliterate and inumarate. Allmost all education and intelectual pursuits were undertaken within the narrow confines of the Church.
Reading and writing were for the most part tools of propaganda and control creating dogma, re-writng history, drafting oppresive laws etc.

The rich and privilaged could “home school” their children through tutors. The poor could “give” a son to the Church to learn to read and write. There have been highly educated individuals in every century but it is only within the last 150 years or so that a commoner like you and me could achieve even a modest degree of literacy.

Of course i don’t think of this as I drop my sweet dreamy little girl into the cookie cutter maw of the school yard evey morning. I think “poor little thing” years and years of school days ahead of her. I think “maybe we should homeschool”? Then I think how and the hell would we do that? Who would give up their job? How could we afford to live on one salary?

Homeschoolers sometimes strike me like the “anti-vaccination” crowd. They count on everyone else vaccinating to keep their child safe. What would happen if we were all really free unfettered spirits motivated purely by self directed joyful pursuits? Who would pick up the garbage? Who would drive the bus? It is only the grudging acceptance that somethings must be done even if they are not fun that keeps civilization chugging along.

Having said all that, I do think kids should not spend any more time in school than absolutely necessary. The longer the summer vacation, the more long week-ends the better.
Kids are kids for only a short while and have the rest of their lives to be adults.

Now I’m going to be responsible and get back to work but not before I check out Google Sketch Up!