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The Background of How Andrew Got Started
Katia: My name is Katia. I am interested in free education, and what can be achieved following the interests of the child, instead of planting one’s own. By education I am an English teacher. I studied, and I taught as well. When Andrew’s younger brother was born, I realized that I was spending time teaching other people’s children as a profession, but I didn’t teach my own. Instead, I had other teachers engaged with them. I realized it was a bit strange, so at that moment I decided to spend my life with them and teach my own children full-time. I haven’t heard of Lifelong Learning at the moment. So at first what we did was not a formal pedagogy. Instead, we left to travel outside of Russia. At first we thought that we would move and live in one place, but afterwards we have decided that we wanted to see the world from different angles and so our travel continued.
Kolya: How old was Andrew at the time?
Kolya: And now?
Andrew: 12, recently turned.
Katia: His brother was 2.5. We first went to an international school in the Dominican Republic.
Andrew: … where I learned English
Katia: There Andrew finished the first grade on the American system (from 6 to 7 years old), but already then we felt somehow a bit uncomfortable in the system. Then, we learned about Unschooling, although I do not like this term very much, it’s so … not very detailed — I do not like the denial of some concept, in order to define myself. But the term “interest-based learning” and “following the interest” seems logical and natural. In general I, as a teacher, observed that for teachers the main task is to come up with a motivation for a person: “forget about your own motivation, I’ll come up with another one and offer it to you.”
Katia: Since then, we did not return to formal schooling, and we worked on our own projects. We traveled a lot, for about 6 years, then returned to Moscow last year. So, we’ve been back here for a year at this point. We tried different things, maybe Andrew himself will tell.
Katia: You can tell a little of history, and then anything you may find interesting.
Andrew: After we left the Dominican Republic, I decided that I no longer want to go to school. I somehow forgot about how to study and became lazy.
Katia: I must say that this was the moment of flourishing of Minecraft, and there were no relevant material in Russian.
Andrew: It helped me learn English!
Katia: Andrew watched a lot of YouTube and read everything he could find. His English was shaky, which he began to forget since the first grade, and the videos helped to learn it again.
Andrew: Now I’m fed up with Minecraft somehow, in my opinion it’s not as good as it used to be. Of course, this can be because the people themselves who play it are not the same. Previously, the videos were better, the plays were better. Now of course the game itself improved, there’s much more stuff, people build impressive projects. Earlier planes were just cylinders with flat wings, and now they are looking almost identical to the real ones.
Kolya: What do you play now, instead of Minecraft?
Andrew: Now I’m programming, playing … well … I build rockets in Kerbal Space Program. I program using Unreal and C++. Yesterday, I started Unity and C#
Andrew: Oh! I also use Python, when I was learning with one of the Minecraft books. There was a picture describing a program, it explained how it should work. I decided that I would just follow the pictures, without reading the text. These were fairly simple programs — one of them required you to create a working shower, for example. It was half-implemented, so you had to add this and that to make it work. While doing that, I somehow replaced a piece of the world with pistons. Then, my father came and explained that I have to also read the text to make it work, which made me start it over again.
Kolya: And lately, are you mostly playing these days, or do you program stuff?
Andrew: When I finished that Minecraft book, I started to program in pure Python. Now I’ve made a game where you have to guess a word. Then I tried to add random words, but it did not work, and I almost stopped programming. Then I told myself: I have to finish this course. I started studying the Unreal engine and finished a part of the course. Well, I’m working on it for a long time already. I have a full-featured game where you able to move, play, all that.
Katia: You should specify that now you’re speaking of an “escape room” kind of game.
Andrew: Well, it’s more of an “escape house”. The game about the questions was in C++, and this one is Unreal. I made the first room where you just move the table and chair to a corner so you could go to the next room. But there wasn’t a second room, so you would just fall out of the world. Then I finished this room, made it look beautiful, and continued to make a house. I built a corridor, two other rooms and a cellar.
Katia: so there’s a recurrent theme — in Minecraft he worked on homes. Then the idea came up to make a skyscraper. We realized that it consists of repetitive modules, so it would be useful to write a program to build it out. And now he works on this house.
Kolya: And what do you use for modeling?
Andrew: I do not build 3D models yet, I’m using default ones. Have you used Unreal? Let me explain. It has this concept of a blueprint — it’s like … their own programming language. Have you used Scratch? It’s similar but a little more difficult. Sometimes better than C++, for example, when you want to make the door to smoothly open. I created a door for the cellar and wanted it to react when you throw something heavy at it.
Andrew: I didn’t have much experience with Unity, but I saw there’s an “animator” feature which I have not used yet. It gives you some tools like points and lines to describe the movement of an object and it is difficult… (describes how dificult it is using gestures). Then, my dad downloaded a Unity course for me.
Kolya: this topic is interesting for me, since I became a programmer because I wanted to make games. I calmed down after a while, but the dream is still with me.
Katia: I think computer games are the future of education. There’s so many educational projects, meetup groups… it’s so much more interesting than reading textbooks. You can see the world, historical sceneries.
Kolya: I grew up in a place in the middle of nowhere, with nothing interesting, and for me these games were the only way to learn about the world.
Kolya: Have you tried programming something physical, raspberry pi, microcontrollers, robots, something like that?
Andrew: I went to the League of Robots, finished one level and reached the second in Lego Mindstorms. At first it was fun, then it became too easy. I was an excellent student, but lazy. Literally I was the dude that crawled under the table and gave candy to everyone.
Kolya: Laziness defines a good programmer!
Katia: Andrew tried Lego Mindstorms. This is a great way to connect programming and hardware. Tried other simple kits that included stuff like fans and radio. One of the recent presents he got is a smart home kit. It’s called “Yodo” from Amperka.
Solving Problems of Space for Andrew
Kolya: I have a Raspberry Pi at home, and speaking of Big Problems, I wanted to build a computer that could measure air pollution. The air where I live is terrible because of the waste processing plant nearby. I bought a bunch of sensors and looking for a right moment to assemble everything
Andrew: Just do it! You’ll feel so good right away!
Kolya: The operating system and power schemes. Raspberry Pi is a full-fledged computer.
Katia: I will add my five cents. Recently, Andrew has developed interest in space exploration and programming / game development.
Andrew: I like to make games and play what I make. I have many ideas for games.
Katia: You’ve mentioned that you have researched how to build ecosystems and reach the distant stars with a spacecraft.
Andrew: The best way to achieve this would be to build a flying city! Mmmmm, a simple … mini-planet.
Kolya: How many people would it fit?
Andrew: Enough that they could live and take care of themselves. Let’s say, a size of population of Moscow!
Kolya: But how to approach the design of such a thing, how much time would it take?
Andrew: It depends on whether people are in a hurry or not. I saw a video that explains what will happen if a neutron star comes to our solar system. It is unlikely that this will happen, but if it does, we should be able to build a ship quickly enough. If humanity would want it, it could do it quickly, especially if all countries work together. If the planet is destroyed, people will be like: “Ok, let’s save the planet,” and no one will care about skin color or anything like that.
And here is what I see: learning is the biggest value and not the study about something. — Katia
Kolya: Would you like to work on this when you grow up?
Andrew: Yes! But I’ve found myself in programming. I certainly can become an astronaut, but it will be easier to become a programmer. I can also be a programmer and still help astronauts with my skills.
Katia: This spring, we began to plot a grand plan to achieve this goal. Back then Andrew decided that he wanted to be a mechanical engineer at the space station.
Andrew: No, I wanted to become a pilot! And a programmer, as a second option. The third option was to become a YouTuber. I don’t want it that bad, but I certainly can make a good living by playing video games and making videos about them. But my will to become a programmer is stronger.
Katia: We have calculated that in order to get into the space program, we have to prepare for a long time, and physically. And you need a number of degrees.
Andrew: You need all of the degrees! Physics, Math, Biology, Chemistry…
Katia: We need to research it, and practice.
Andrew: And along the way, we can also share our story and inspire others to pursue the same goals. Or make good music, make good songs, make good animation, have some funny stories. But for programming you just need to know programming and be good at math and stuff like that.
Katia: So we need a plan in those sciences. And we need a mastery in the languages, because sciences in Russian is kind of cool. And so while there on the way, just do some programming. So what is it we started doing? There are practical things like the Kerbal Space Program, which is kind of a nice Physics course and like explains physical concepts real nicely.
Andrew: It’s the best space simulator in the industry.
Katia: So, then the game Kerbal Space Program pulls some math concepts along with it and then we need some proficiency and really fast reading, as well as some nice philosophy and popular science concepts. At some point, Andy also started following the course by Chris Hadfield, the ISS captain. While doing the course, he decided to simultaneously do programming as well. Until now, he decided to go with a break from programming, just recently.
Andrew: I like programming and I feel like it is achievable to see the results. As opposed to being an astronaut, it will take years to be accepted as one. Also, no barfing, and I am extremely susceptible to motion sickness.
Kolya: And what kinds of steps have you already taken?
Andrew: I have made a game. I am making a game. I am learning two programming languages, two different software development engines, and also I’m learning math, which will probably help me.
Katia: What’s your everyday routine?
Andrew: I don’t really have a routine. I just do what I feel like doing. Though I have a timetable. I wake up. Go to the toilet, brush my teeth, meditate (with Headspace), read a book, do some exercise. Well yeah, pretty much turn into a chimpanzee. Eat breakfast, go outside, plan the day, hopefully remember to do my math…every night I would literally think, ok, I go to the routine manager, and in the math exercise, just seriously, do it.
Katia: There’s just a little bit of holiday vibe that’s kind of hard to clean up afterwards.
Andrew: And then do programming until I am bored with it. When I am interested in programming, which will probably happen now with Unity, I will be programming until 10 o’clock. From 1 o’clock in the afternoon to 10 o’clock at night. I keep going until I am bored, which if it’s a good day, I will continue until 8, 7, or 10 in the evening. So, pretty much most of the day.
Katia: So when you have this opportunity to do a longer streaks of things you like to do, this allows for the freedom for him to grow more deeply into what he’s working on. If instead, you have to pursue the exact same interest in programming and then you have a History lesson in school, and some other classes, then you have to stop what you are doing abruptly, then you don’t have this kind of opportunity to grow as much and as deeply. For instance, he had an opportunity when he discovered a streak on space exploration. This then naturally extends a bit into some actual engineering, building and construction, reading, and then back to programming.
Andrew: Well, I was having a streak in programming. I will probably have it soon because it is interesting for Unity. I will make my first Numbers game. Learn C# a little bit and then start making the game.
Learning Methods and Project Management for Andrew
Kolya: By streaks, do you mean it like seasonal streaks or daily streaks?
Katia: It happens something like around a month. We will go into exploration of space and aircraft, space vehicles, learning a lot about the technology and whatnot. And then applying it and building it then writing a book of his Captain’s Journey…
Andrew: Which I am now bored of. I crash landed six Kerbals on Mars trying to make a rescue mission. And I thought, that could be a story turned into a book, which I shared with my parents.
Katia: And within the game, you also had to learn about aerodynamics and take it into account.
Katia: How did you do it? How did you solve your problems? Okay, so I’m launching this thing and it doesn’t work. What did you read or watch around it? How did you Google it?
Andrew: I saved the craft I built in Kerbal Space Program, and I went on to do other things and realize how they work and after realized how the things work by building other things and Googling it. How aerodynamics work. How to make planes. There is a Planes 101. For any at least reasonably popular game, there will be at least one Planes 101, Rockets 101, Coasters 101.
Katia: How did you stumble across this course?
Andrew: The course? My dad bought it. I was like: I want to do programming, get me a course on Unreal Engine. Then my dad is like: here it is.
Katia: And how did you get your books?
Andrew: They were birthday presents.
Katia: And how are you programming?
Andrew: I am using Visual Studio and Unreal Engine for that. And right now I’m just using Unity and it’s built-in programming.
Katia: So when you’re discussing things with your father, how do you go about it?
Andrew: I discuss what I can do; what I did; what I am doing; how I am doing it; how I think I can be doing it better; and new ideas.
Katia: And remember, this is something that’s very natural to yourself. For people other than yourself — they don’t know how you do it, and sometimes just talking it out loud in the evening. That’s what’s very interesting already.
Big Ideas, Hands-On Approach and Structure
Katia: We, as parents, specialize like that. Dad is about the brainy, techie stuff. And Mom is about the hands-on approach and physical activity. Dad is about the big ideas, philosophy, proper googling and finding the best stuff out there, be that pieces of information or top notch devices. And I’m there with cooking and everyday chores and structures, planning the learning and life choices.
Let’s say Dad is bit like an “outside” witness. And Mom is a valuable insider in activities. In all honesty I can say to the boys “I don’t know, let’s find out”. And when this path is exhausted we can check out with dad. Also they say that Dad is chill and Mom is fun ;)
I think that the most important thing is to watch kids be. To see them. And watching those guys is awesome. I mean, look at them, kids are amazing!
Watch them flip, build a rocket ship, plan a new picture… see them trying, failing, creating.
And here is what I see: learning is the biggest value and not the study about something. We have this goal of X, so let’s place some structure around this goal. To get there we need to apply some structured courses and some structured lessons. Also to actually do the drills and practice time and again every day, almost as a daily rhythm.
I value learning more than study. Still I see that they support each other. The structured meticulous studying is a part of the free-flowing learning. To fulfill your fantasy you apply some effort and some measured steps and drills. And if the effort is repetitive it turns into a rhythm. And the rhythm supports itself. So you are not wasting the effort. You rather flow on the waves right to your goal.
Kolya: What was the last thing you built together?
Andrew: The Millennium Falcon. A table-sized Millennium Falcon. It is absolutely huge. We started it by making it all together. Dad did not really want to. It is so huge. It has 17 bags of brick, with large bags, small bags and also unlabeled bags. Imagine this huge box the size of that table and then four boxes inside of that. That is huge.
Katia: And there is this magic thing happening. So there is this rhythmical thing to be healthy. Add in the idea, and then in our regular days some magical things happens when the information comes to you. Just like I did not explain because it’s magic.
Katia: Andy is bilingual. He has friends here. It’s just he needs someone else to share from the second part of his personality, that speaks English. So, we just recently made an acquaintance, with a family to get together with. So, there is the support of the community. I find it really helpful to use this support with others to share progress, answering each other’s questions, etc. I see how this process of teaching kids independently supports the development of even the grown ups that are involved.
Katia: That’s what I’m doing with my project: so we have the guys exchanging in text and then we find it really useful to meet in person, or at least online with a call. Because this human presence, body language, and just emotional sharing unites and helps build a team. Andrew’s idea for going into the course was to find a teammate to create projects together. That sort of failed.
Andrew: Well, there was one person who I liked working with. There was the other grade school student, but he was kind of like a robot himself. He had the best grades in everything.
Katia: But he was kind of a “grades” person.
Andrew: I was not the most well-behaved, but I was probably the second-to-most laziest person. The laziest person was…I was working with him during the time to disassemble the robot, and then he was playing on his phone. I was like: “dude, can you help me?” And he was like: “yeah, just not now.” And the exact second when I finished disassembling the robot, was also the exact second when he said: “alright, I can help now.” I think he knew it and he was planning on it. He did that intentionally. I am the crazy one and I do everything, or I am the lazy one and I do nothing.
Final Advice from Mom
Andrew: I’m kind of succeeding in the “not doing math in the day” when my brain is not functioning. That is the time when my brain decides to remember it.
Katia: So, if you go into the monkey-mode in the morning, you’re in the monkey-mode in the whole day. And it’s less productive actually. If you take a little time between activities: activities; rest; activities; rest. Then those times of activities become more productive than if you go into the rush all day. And then you’re counterproductive and getting worse and worse.
Andrew: If you go to rush all the days, you will eventually get to the point thinking “whew, I did everything I want — oh wait I forgot to do everything”. So, you’re like: “what did I do today? Oh, I played video games for 10 hours straight.
Katia: Good sleep is important. Good rhythm in everything. At least a number of rhythmic activities throughout the day. Start your day without phones and notifications and internet. Leave some time to plan your day with a friend. Drink lots of water. Have some walks in the streets, at least. And then it supports the whole day: if I have a healthy structure, going into bed at night at normal timing, then wake up in the morning all fresh and recharged. You can do the meditation or you can just do things mindfully with intention. Along with drinking water and a nice breakfast. And only then, go into the rush of the day. And even within the rush, consider “what I would like to do” in relation to the immediate goals, and find out what are the steps to achieve it. Take some rest in the evening. It’s possible.