The more I learn about learning, the less I understand why many educators believe all kids need to learn the same subjects at the same age and in more or less the same fashion.
That’s not how true learning works.
But, the critics say, if you let kids just learn whatever they want, how will they acquire that all important “general knowledge” base? How will they become good, contributing citizens? (By the way, I’m not sure why becoming a good citizen or having a broad general knowledge base is intrinsically tied to compulsory schooling, but a lot of people seem to believe that it is.)
Let’s look at two hypothetical scenarios, inspired by a real-life boy I know.
In the first scenario, this boy hated school and struggled to pass in every subject but one. Shop. From a young age he loved cars, trucks & motorcycles and spent all his free time learning about them. By the time he entered high school he could tear down an engine and put it back together almost with his eyes closed. He could tell you in detail about the workings of any engine and the vehicle it powered.
No one outside of shop class knew about or put any real value on his extensive mechanical knowledge. According to the system, it had no connection to anything else he was supposed to be learning. Teachers thought him difficult & sullen. He was placed in remedial classes and cut school whenever possible. His parents despaired of him ever doing anything productive with his life.
He lived up to the system’s expectations, and dropped out, believing himself ignorant and a failure.
In the second scenario, the boy did not go to school at all, his parents having chosen to unschool him. They recognized his passion for mechanics and automobiles, and encouraged the interest. They bought models, took out books from the library and visited auto shops so he could watch the mechanics work and ask questions.
After a while, he started working on motorcycles, trucks and cars. He could tear down an engine and put it back together almost with his eyes closed. He could tell you in detail about the workings of any engine and the vehicle it powered.
While reading a book about vintage cars, he became interested in the history of automobiles. Using the internet and the library, he began reading about the first internal combustion engines. Names like Daimler, Benz, Studebaker and Ford led him to a more in depth reading of those men and their biographies. Along the way he learned something about the times & countries in which they lived. Reading that Ford was anti-semitic, he did further research into what that meant which led to an entire month spent reading about the 1st and 2nd World Wars.
All the while, he was also experimenting with engines. To build an engine from scratch takes a lot of patience and knowledge. Math, physics and engineering all come into play, and despite frustrations and setbacks he worked hard to master each skill, as it brought him closer to his goal of building his own custom engine. He salvaged some parts and raised the money to buy the rest. He budgeted and researched where to get the best deals. Quality became an issue, so he researched the difference in cost and quality between parts made locally in the U.S. and those made overseas. In doing so he learned about the political nature of trade agreements and labor conditions in the various countries in which the parts he needed were made.
He decided to only buy parts made here in the U.S.
Once he was old enough he began to work part time in a garage, getting hands on experience with the goal of having his own shop one day.
Which of these scenarios do you think would produce the better citizen; the child with a broad knowledge base who will contribute to society?
In my book there is no comparison. See how a kid who says they have no interest in history might in fact become interested if it is connected to something about which they are passionate? See how children who “hate Math” might become very proficient at a range of math skills when they relate to a project or goal they chose for themselves?
But what about those kids who don’t know what their passion is? For those kids, it is important to be able to experiment without fear of ridicule. To try a variety of things until they find their passion. They’ll learn a lot along the way, and once they’ve discovered their area of interest, it will all accelerate.
This works for all kids, and in any area of interest. That’s right, all kids. No matter their socioeconomic background or family situation. If they are encouraged and supported – by a parent, a teacher, a mentor, a grandparent; by someone – in finding/pursuing their interest, even if those things do not exactly coincide with a curriculum, they are far more likely to flourish in all areas of life and learning.