Put aside AI and machine learning for a minute, and ask instead:
“What does it take to equip a human to be self-teaching?”
As a starting point – how many lines of code does it take to make a child who can read with fluency and ease and with critical understanding, and who loves reading, and is motivated to read and learn more?
We just tidied my kids’ bookcase, and I took a moment – okay, more than a moment – to count the books.
There are 519 books on this book case (including those on the floor and nearby that should be on it).
There are picture books, stories, touch-and-feel books, comics, small novels, catalogues, phonics books, kids bibles, magazines, science books, poetry, stories and non-fiction books about other cultures, lots of books about cars, even a couple of hand-written and coloured books by his great aunt, and a couple of notebooks with short and often unfinished stories that he’s written himself.
He’s had them read and re-read to him by a range of people, had pictures pointed out, words explained, sounds and meanings spelled out, questions asked.
He’s listened, looked, laughed, frowned, cried on occasion, got fed up, desperately begged to have them read to him, been indifferent.
And he’s read them repeatedly by himself: browsed their pages, poured over the pictures, flicked through them, gone back to favourite bits again and again, skipped the endings or skipped to the endings, tried out the words, phrases and attitudes, in the real world come to us with questions, absorbed our answers, disagreed with our interpretations, shared with us bits that he’s loved, come to us with things that have scared him, made up stories just like them, and new stories of his own.
Did I mention the 250 leveled reading books – the books specifically designed to help kids learn to read – that live upstairs?
Or the books we’ve borrowed from friends or read at their houses, the books read at or borrowed from libraries?
Or the ebooks?
He’s probably read about a thousand books.*
190,000 and the less-than-one-percent
But it’s not just about numbers – which books he’s read is as important as how many. Most of these books are a custom selection, just for him, made by someone with his current tastes and future growth in mind (my wife is something of a book-picking phenomenon) from the roughly 190,000 books aimed at children under 12 that are available to him in our culture.**
So the selection on these shelves represents the tip of a huge pyramid – roughly the best, most engaging and most appropriate 0.5% of books written for people like him.
Don’t forget the wrapper
That – the books themselves and the wrapper of love, support, enthusiasm, the culture of curiosity and valuing education, the relative affluence, and living in an economy that makes books like these cheaper than ever before if you bide your time and look out for deals – is what it takes to produce a solid reader at age seven or eight.
*I’ll try to estimate how many words this represents another time
**My point of reference for this was the number of books available on Amazon.co.uk – see this post for more information