Monday, March 21, 2011

Things Everyone Needs To Know

One of the common questions about unschooling and its lack of curriculum:

Aren't there things everyone needs to know?

I'm not sure about that. When pressed to answer their own question, most people say things like "basic math" or "how to read" and then have trouble thinking of much else. Even if I conceded that these two things were absolutely necessary for every person to know, that would hardly justify me sending my kids to school, as schools try to teach a whole lot more than just those things.

Every hour I spend tutoring students makes me wonder even more about the things that are taught in school. Just in the past few weeks, I have helped kids learn how to do polynomial long division and to use the three different methods for solving quadratic equations. Also, I have student who is in Geometry this year, and this week I helped him memorize all the different formulas for the length of an intercepted arc of a circle. Why?! Why does every child need to know these things?

And what does it mean to "know" something? In school, I think it means "getting a good grade on the test." It requires remembering something just long enough to answer a few to a lot of questions correctly. As I pointed out in my first post about tests, these forced testing situations are unique to school.

When I tutor a child who is not a "natural mathematician," I notice that sometimes it can seem like he understands a concept as I work with him. But even sometimes the very next day I talk to him about it, it is like he has never heard of it before. If he happens to take a test a few hours after our session, and does reasonably well on it, does that mean he knows it?

What about the child who definitely understands the concept, but does poorly on the test because he forgot to show his work (because he didn't need to do any work to get the answer)? Or because he is sick? Or distracted because of some tragic situation going on in his life? Does that mean he does not know it?

What do you think everyone needs to know? And how long does someone have to remember something before he qualifies as "knowing" that thing?


  1. Vickie. First off, I enjoy reading your blog. You should really come down and see the Learning Center I work at sometime. That being said, here is a brief, albeit somewhat pedestrian answer to your questions.

    I am not sure I have the complete answer on what kids should know beyond, reading and basic math skills, except for History, specifically that of their own country. There are far too many kids who know very little History of their own country, let alone the rest of the world. Having even just a deeper understanding of how the government has evolved, MIGHT just make them infuriated at what is going on now. So History is one of the things I think all kids should know.

    Beyond that, I think you truly "know" something, when you are unconsciously competent with it, that is to say, you can remember and recall things without even realizing you are doing it. Of course, doing that requires that you DO actually know something, if that makes any sense.

    Love the blog Vickie! Those are my .02 cents.

  2. I think people need to know how to write, when to use an apostrophe and a comma, etc. Otherwise, they lose credibility. You would not believe how many MDs I know who can't spell or write a decent sentence.

  3. @Dan, Thank you so much! Your comment means a lot to me! As far as learning about one's own country, I agree it would be nice if more people knew/cared/took action about what is going on right now. The problem is, we do try to teach kids about history, but it's in the most boring, disengaging way possible. I wish we could throw out the mind-numbing textbooks! That would be a good start.

    I think that is a good definition for "knowing." That's why it's funny what looks like "knowing" in the school sense. It's a far cry from the real-life definition.

    @Skeptical, Two funny things about that:
    1. Those people were still able to become MDs without knowing how to write a sentence. That speaks volumes to me about whether people NEED to know how to write.
    2. Those people most likely went through years and years of school in which they were taught how to write properly. And yet, it seems to have done them no good!

  4. Agreed....some people are just better at expressing their thoughts in a written fashion. And while I do appreciate good writers...I am hard pressed to accept the supposition that MD's are not afforded credibility in our culture. There are always editors and spell/ grammar check. I think more than EVERY person being indoctrinated with a specific set of skills/ information - we need to know how to learn, how to think and how to find the information we need and the resources we need, when we need them. As for learning history.... I am still embarrassed that I don't remember more about history from school. I think what is more important than a list of "Things Everyone Needs to Know", is preserving and encouraging curiosity and connection to our world and the people in it. Rather than sending out a slew of "finished products" of information and skills into the world, we would be better served to send forth empty vessels - hungry to be filled.

  5. I have been thinking about this issue too - as I homeschool my gifted, twice-exceptional kids and as I tutor mathematics "after school".

    As an ex-high school teacher, I saw the kids, who despite having attended school for 9-10 years, were unable to put together a paragraph or spell. I totally agree with you on the maths thing - just because you can do it for a test, does it mean you "learnt" it? Is it really, really important?

    I actually think perspective on what kids in school can and can't do puts me in a unique position when it comes to educating my own kids. I want them to really enjoy reading (which they do) and I help them expand their reading horizons by enjoying books with them that they would not have chosen themselves (you would love my son laughing out loud at Anne of Green Gables). We think critically - we have fantastic discussions that tease out the finer detail. We pursue our interests - quantum physics, algebra at many years ahead of when their age peers would encounter these concepts in school because they are ready and interested.

    The more I see of schools and tutor things that "should be taught" the more I steer away from that in our homeschool. Thank you for expressing that in a blog, because then I don't feel so weird!

  6. @Ingi, Maybe we are a little weird, but in a good way! :)

    It's awesome that our children may never feel like learning is *work*. What a wonderful gift to be able to give!

  7. Great article! My son, who learns easily and gets great grades in school, used to agonize over not doing well on timed math tests, where they are to do so many problems in a specific time. All his answers would be correct, but he would leave many unanswered because he didn't do them quickly. I told him not to worry about it for three reasons: It wouldn't affect his overall grade, it's not about grades anyway (it's about learning), and outside of school, he would NEVER have a timed math test. Luckily those seemed to stop after 4th grade. (He's in 6th now.) But there are other similar situations.

  8. Vickie, this post really hit home with me. I'm a former high school teacher and my biggest problem was the RIDICULOUS list of things that children "were supposed to know" after taking my class. I taught biology and nowhere was there anything about the human body or nutrition or anything practical. I was supposed to teach (and by teach, I mean lecture and make them regurgitate) things like photosynthesis, the citric acid cycle, meiosis, mitosis... things that they found boring because even they knew they'd never need to know this stuff. The only thing my teenagers ever really engaged in willingly was sex ed.... because they're interested in that, obviously.

    I think it's funny that people are so concerned about how unschooled kids are going to learn anything, while educators are trying so hard to reproduce the unschooling atmosphere in the classroom. When I was in school five years ago to get my teaching credential, the big thing was "learning through inquiry" where you would set the stage for learning to occur naturally instead of front-loading it. Everyone already knows when the best learning happens and how, but they're afraid to admit that we've been doing it wrong for a long time.