The Uscolian Experience

Imagine the earth as a gigantic experiment in learning. Every minute 256 babies are born with brains identically wired for inquiry and knowledge.

A minute later, however, each newborn in its crib, cradle, bassinet, basket, or carry cot is exposed to different signals that begin to shape its brain, and each one embarks on a separate trajectory leading to a different adventure. It is called life. The way the stimuli are organized and presented to these newborns determines the path they take through life. If you are aware of it, you can help guide its course to a considerable extent. But you must have a path marked, or at least a direction of travel—mapped out at birth or close thereafter. Uscolians believe that they have discovered such a path.

We are all dealt by birthright one coupon for a free lunch: our native language. It is the one body of knowledge we all acquire without fail. It also gives us insight into how we learn our mother tongue without being taught, by exposure, observation, and imitation. Our brains are self-learning pattern-recognition and rule-building machines. What we generally refer to as teaching (teacher transferring knowledge to student) is an illusion. All learning is internal, beginning and ending inside the brain. Teachers convey not knowledge but metadata, information about knowledge; all understanding is created internally, by the brain collecting statistics on stimuli to which it is exposed. We are easily fooled into thinking that schools can teach at all by the fact that they are not complete failures, because in the midst of all the wasted instruction, they willy-nilly also expose some content, which the students’ brains then turn into learning. Probing how the brain collects statistics to help us acquire native fluency in our mother tongue reveals how the brain changes in the process, and how we can change it further by exposing it early to content in other areas, for example music.

So much for theory. What about the practice?

Uscolia, the island

The place where all the theory is put in practice is Uscolia, the island of native fluency and of learning without teach-ing, located on the conti-nuation of the curlicue that winds around the 49th parallel separating the US from Canada. Uscolians have a pen-chant for original thinking and radical solutions. Although they pay great attention to detail, they have an uncanny ability to see the big picture. Their elemental tax system is a good example. Uscolians use a unique method for raising revenue. There is no income tax or sales tax; four resources are taxed: land, water, energy, and air (in the form of emissions), matching the four classical elements of earth, water, fire, and air. In a somewhat different order, they are referred to by the acronym AFEW. It makes for an extremely simple taxation system and entirely eliminates the need for accountants. With such an elementary revenue raising mechanism, there is no need to pass budget legislation every year, because officials can adjust the revenues by merely adding or subtracting small percentages to or from the taxes levied on any of the four resources, as needed to meet expenses.

Even more radical is their education system, which features no schools and involves no teaching. A network of studios is available to children of all ages to gain exposure to the variety of human accomplishment, to discover mathematical truths, and to sample the richness of natural phenomena. Studios are open 24/7/365, but attendance is voluntary. In the studio, children can join any activity they wish, or initiate their own. There are no classes and no teachers, but paid and volunteer staff, as well as visiting experts provide guidance in the various projects being conducted simultaneously. Without separation by age, children participate in large-scale experiments, play collaborative music, produce plays, explore, design, build, create, and above all, learn. Studios are hybrid entities that function as laboratories, museums, libraries, conservatories, workshops, theaters, concert halls, and fitness centers rolled into one.

Uscolia, the book

Uscolia is the story of an extraordinary journey to the legendary island of native fluency and learning without teaching. We all acquire our native languages without fail and without any proper teaching—by exposure, observation, and imitation. Understanding this process provides valuable insight into the brain’s method of learning, and reveals how we can achieve effective learning without teaching. Readers join the narrator on an extended visit to a typical studio. Over several days, they get to witness the math lab, where a young guru “talks math” to a baby, and a pair of kids explore the hidden math in Alice in Wonderland. They visit the data processing lab learn about algorithms, automated control, and data storage by programming a Jacquard loom. They watch children make potash by leaching spent wood ashes, a preliminary step for making a battery, in a project that replicates some of the engineering feats accomplished by the castaways of Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, who reconstruct from scratch the accomplishments of human technology. They observe children as they build a garbage sorter, watch an original play, attend a concert, and participate in an assortment of activities in the arts and sciences.

In the Uscolian spirit

The author also describes his hands-on experience in applying Uscolian principles within the context of an ordinary family. Although Uscolia is not a how-to book, the last two chapters provide sufficient information to guide parents in exposing their young children to music and to the written word, for their children to achieve perfect pitch and to begin reading before they can speak.

The pianist in this video is Ariel, product of the Uscolian spirit—if not a proper graduate—native speaker of music and of several other languages. The performance is from a live broadcast at Radio France, in Paris. Ariel is now a student at the Royal Academy of Music, in London.