When people ask me why my kids aren’t learning math, I ask them why their kids aren’t learning an instrument. Or why they aren’t learning a language. Because math, music, and language all develop the brain in similar ways. They are all good for a similar type of learning. But the question that assumes that math is the one right way to develop that part of the brain betrays the assumption that traditional school knows best.
Traditional school has kids do a little of everything. So parents have in their heads that this is the right way. This would be okay, of course, if we didn’t live in a world that rewards specialists. For ten years I have been writing about how important specializing is for your career. Specialization is essential, really, to staying employable throughout your adult life. But I have recently been blown away by how clear the research is that kids should specialize as well.
Which means that you either need to make your kid great at the test-taking game, or you need to find something else for the kid to be great at.
The world of test-taking is hard-core. This article in the New York Times about using Adderall off-label, as a stimulant, summarizes what’s going on in the elite world of kids who do well in traditional school. And, by traditional school I mean private schools that say they are better than traditional school. The parents still hold these schools accountable for teaching kids to be successful at test-taking so they can march up the path of canned curriculum.
The article talks about how Adderall is essential for competing at the elite levels of school mastery. It makes sense that Adderral would be essential because school is about memorizing stuff that other people tell you is important. It’s a list of stuff. The faster you get through the list, the better you are doing at the game.
On the other hand, when people engage in creative activity, using Adderall off-label is not much help. Psychologist James Hoffman writes that small levels of creativity are common, and don’t get achieve nearly as much as serious “big C” levels of creativity. People who have that big C creativity are often people who give up everything else to get it.
That’s the instructive part for homeschoolers, I think. You can’t go both routes. To raise your kid to be great at something, you have to raise your kid to not be great at some things. Parents are usually willing to go along with this, in principle, but when it comes to choosing between creativity and test taking, they are not so keen to choose, which teaches kids to be mediocre in all they do.
And this is what gets people into the most career trouble. Being too scared to specialize.
Teaching kids to be brave enough to specialize when they are young gives them the strength to make those choices throughout their life. Whether or not what you do as a kid is what you want to do forever, research from psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, that process of learning how to do something well is not wasted.
What’s most amazing to me about these findings, though, is that if you look at the research about self-directed learning, it shows that kids pick what they are interested in. And naturally kids are not equally interested in math and writing. So they pick one. Above the other. Which makes parents nervous. A kid’s interest could be video games, it could be soccer, it could be travel. We all have a natural proclivity to focus on what we are interested in. And we place high value on doing this as adults. But because traditional school is geared toward creating generalists, by the time kids are done with school, their natural instinct to specialize has been marginalized so much that they don’t even know what interests them any longer.
I hear so often that kids have to do what they are not interested in so they can succeed at work. But in fact, it’s the exact opposite. If they do not learn how to zero-in microscopically on what they love then they won’t be good enough at anything in order to stay employable. They will be doing the work someone else deems interesting. And this, I think, is what causes people to use Adderral in work life—they get so used to doing other peoples’ agendas as fast as they can, in school, that it seems normal to take drugs to do other peoples’ agendas as fast as they can at work.