What Makes an 'Extreme Learner'?

By Jane Mount/MindShift
By Jane Mount/MindShift

When Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski was dissecting a sheep’s heart during an eighth-grade science class, she had an epiphany that changed her life. “That heart told the story of anatomy and physiology!” she said.

Realizing that science is best communicated through stories, Cueva-Dabkoski, now just 19 years old, went on to explore beetles in China. She's now at Johns Hopkins University, and continues to do research during breaks.

Cueva-Dabkoski is considered an "Extreme Learner," a designation applied to just 12 individuals by the Institute for the Future, for her radical and gutsy approach to learning. Extreme Learners are self-directed, wide-ranging in their interests, comfortable with technology, and adept at building communities around their interests.

“Extreme learners aren’t so different from everybody else,” said Milton Chen, a fellow at the Institute for the Future and advocate for education reform. “We picked people who are extreme in their passion for learning." They are also willing to go their own way when traditional educational institutions interfere with their pursuits.

Thomas Hunt, for example, another designated "extreme learner," dropped out of high school when he was 14 to work on cancer research. Always interested in science, he found high school stultifying and needlessly time-consuming. Kids of varied interests were thrown together and taught in “the cookie-cutter method,” he said. After he left, Hunt found like-minded learners when he became one of 20 Thiel Fellows, formerly known as “20 Under 20,” which paid him $100,000 to drop out of school for two years and pursue his studies. “For some kids who have a vision of what they’re interested in, high school is not for them,” he said.

This was also true for Marc Roth, another extreme learner who dropped out of high school three times and never finished his community college education. (He earned his high school equivalency degree in three weeks.) Today, Roth is the founder of the Learning Shelter, a 90-day training program that teaches homeless people high-tech manufacturing skills. Roth is 40, and his improbable path to the Learning Shelter included delivering pizzas, programming and consulting in IT, sailing the seas on a cruise ship, and starting his own business. When that business collapsed, and Roth’s net worth fell from $21 million to nothing, he moved to San Francisco and lived in his car. When his car was broken into, Roth decamped to a homeless shelter for five months.

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Roth reversed his fortune — and earned his bona fides as an Extreme Learner — when he was broke and living in the shelter.  He heard others talking about a nearby TechShop, and decided to scrape up the $59 membership fee and give it a try. TechShops are stand-alone buildings with staffs and million-dollar tools that train high-tech skills to anyone interested and able to afford the modest fee; set up with laser cutters and plastics labs, among other tools, they are meant to promote creativity and skill-development. Roth devoured the learning opportunities at the TechShop in San Francisco, starting with sewing and vinyl cutting, and within two months moved from pupil to teacher. “When I only had pennies to my name, I turned everything I had into education instead of comforts or niceties,” he said.

INSATIABLE NEED FOR LEARNING

It’s the hunger for learning rather than raw intellect that distinguishes Extreme Learners from the gifted. Intensely motivated and harboring a breadth of interests, they also consider ignorance a temporary and reparable condition.

Lenore Edman, for example, who along with her husband designs and produces robotic kits for their company Evil Mad Scientist, is motivated by what she doesn’t know. “I’ve recognized that this is what makes me different: I may not know it, but I don’t see it has a barrier,” she said, reflecting the premise behind the growth mindset disposition. “The most extreme thing is not being afraid to learn new things,” she added.

In her work, Edman erases boundaries between math and food, electricity and paper crafts. Recently, she sewed what she called a “missile command skirt,” styled after a vintage video game, and built a “circuitry snack” out of candy. “It was a fun project because we got to eat the candy at the end,” she said. She’s most interested in what happens when different fields intersect, and looks for ways to take the tools of one field and apply them to another.

What's the lesson here for schools? In short, standardization, repetition, and rigidity are deadly for the curious. “Nothing bores me more than seeing a list of redundant facts I have to memorize,” Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski said. Biology class dragged for Thomas Hunt, but the school turned him down when he tried to replace a few classes with work in a lab outside school. “High school is a big day care system,” Roth said.

Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski
Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski

But some schools have figured out how to engage their inquisitive students. Mollie Cueva-Dabkoski attended Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, an arts-based school that rewarded exploration and free choice. “We were given a ridiculous amount of time to read and explore,” she said, which allowed her to discover her genuine interests. The school also encouraged creativity through arts, which Cueva-Dabkoski credits with stimulating her enthusiasm for the Brazilian arts. Outside school, she joined an Afro-Brazilian dance troupe and taught dance to kids in Oakland.

“Of all the places in school, in art kids can create exactly what they want,” she said. And in a conflict between depth and breadth of learning, the school rewarded depth. Rather than memorize the dates and key figures in World War II, for example, students were encouraged to go deep on one particular person or event. Time, freedom, and space to make art crystalized for Cueva-Dabkoski, who is scurrying to publish her extracurricular research on beetles before the summer ends and Johns Hopkins beckons.

“If you put the pieces together, you see a movement,” Chen said. Along with MakerLabs, Maker Faires, and TechShops, all of which foster independent learning and creativity, Extreme Learners have indulged their intellectual passions in their own time and on their own terms. Formal educational institutions have little to do with it.

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“The main takeaway for teachers is, give students more flexibility and choice over what they’re working on,” Milton Chen said. “Give kids the tools to identify their interests and gather information. And help them find like-minded people to work with.”

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