Homeschoolers don’t need a science curriculum

It turns out that test scores for US students are going down for science. And Steven Strauss, a leadership fellow at Harvard, says the US is approaching Third-World status because student math scores are so low. But you know what? Math scores are not the harbinger of developing society. Women entering the workforce and earning their own money is what leads a developing country out of Third-World status.

And you know what? Science scores are not what make women employable. Grit, determination, and self-confidence make women employable. Not because you can wish your way to the workforce, but because those traits make you able to get the help and mentoring you need to make your own money.

Real scientific progress comes from the geniuses who succeed regardless of the fact that they often leave school early on. (Einstein, for example.) You know when we were making huge science progress as a nation? When the Jews in Europe were streaming into the US to get away from discrimination and the population skewed disproportionately to math and science geniuses. Today, people who make big contributions to math and science do it independently, or in spite of, school curriculum. For example, Philip Streich who had six science patents by age 17, or the kids who win the Intel science competitions and do so largely outside of our school systems.

The reason that politicians focus on science scores is because it’s measurable. They can have fights about statistics and debates about policy decisions if the issues are measurable. You cannot measure grit. How do we teach grit on a national level? How to measure it? We don’t have tools for that. (Though you could argue that the best way to increase grit and determination on a national level is be generous about letting in immigrants because they had to work so hard to get across the border. But that’s for another post.)

Science knowledge isn’t easily measurable. What knowledge even counts as scientific? I have noticed, on the farm, that the kids know tons about biology. They know why the alpacas are trying to mate even though they are boys. They understand why there is sex drive leftover even though the alpacas are castrated. At dinner we evaluate ethical alternatives to de-horning goats.

Does this count as science? Because none of it’s on the test, so very few kids are learning it.

Do you need to know brontosaurus is now apatosaurus? Do you need to know Pluto has been demoted from planet status? If you have kids, yes. If not, no.

Which is to say that science knowledge is too specialized to be a measure of our success. Curricula tries to keep our science knowledge broad. But we should not aim for broad science knowledge. We should aim for teaching kids to ask and answer questions: ‘Why is the sky blue?’ is as valuable a question as, ‘Why is the pig’s vagina bleeding?’ The world of questions is vast. And learning to ask good questions is where the value is.

37 replies
  1. victoria
    victoria says:

    I’m curious why you say that the kids who win and are finalists in the Intel do so largely outside of the school systems. I looked it up because that factoid seemed interesting, and every finalist over the last two years has gone to either a traditional school or a boarding school. I’m familiar with some of those schools and I know some of them (including several public schools I’m familiar with) have architectures in place to help kids with long-term science projects like these — allowing independent studies for credit, lab access, mentoring, etc. Yeah, the kids are putting in lots of hours outside the school day, but that doesn’t seem too different from the kids who are heavily involved with marching band or drama club or a school sports team.

  2. Colin
    Colin says:

    Except Einstein got good grades in physics and mathematics, and got a PhD. Yet you use him as a poster child against the establishment, which doesn’t make sense.

    • CJ
      CJ says:

      He hated school. He wrote about it. He spoke about it frequently. He attributed none of his knowledge and or understanding of anything to school. If anything, he blamed school for stifling and wasting his precious time for learning. And, like Gatto, he went to schools to say so. He is the perfect example and I adore him. Always have, always will.

  3. redrock
    redrock says:

    I doubt it is such a unilaterial thing: the grit and perseverance and inventiveness of women moving into the workforce and opening small business has clearly a huge impact on the development of countries. However, when moving away from a purely agrarian and small industries society, the science and engineering and technical expertise becomes much more important. So, if the US does not want to loose its status as a world leader of technology the science and math skills are absolutely essential. It does not mean everybody has to become a scientist or engineer, but it means that one has to work on overall providing a good to excellent education in these areas. Currently the US relies rather heavily on importing these skills.

    Unfortunately the representation of science often is reduced to looking only at the genius – part of this is due to the often less than stellar ability of the scientists and engineers to present themselves to the public. However, this is not a correct view of the development of science, none of the genius feats can be accomplished without the many many intelligent but not quite genius people working in science. The transistor (the heart of every computer) could only be built after the non-genius was able to make the material and produce a sufficiently pure Germanium crystal. The first transistor was about the size of a fist – now they are in the range of nanometers. These advances can not be made by a few strikes of genius.

    P.S. Einstein’s apparently poor school grades in math are due to a transcription error from the Swiss school he attended (grade in math was 5, the best grade in the swiss school) when he switched back to the german system where a grade of 5 is the worst grade.

  4. redrock
    redrock says:

    P.S. I personally don’t think that testing for science achievement is actually as straightforward: being able to recite Newton’s law of motion for example is not the same as being able to understand and use it. It is like testing a language by only asking for isolated words instead of complete sentences.

  5. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    Curricula, of any kind, are tools used by educational institutions. In general, unschoolers prefer an approach that does not require these tools: interest-led education.

    In interest-led education, a child is first exposed to a wide variety of human experience, knowledge and art. Science is, of course, part of that. As a result of this exposure, kids tend to find affinities to some areas, and often these are the same as where they have special abilities to excel.

    Once the affinities and abilities are discovered, the second part of interest-led education takes over, and one can let those interests propel a child through a focused and highly effective course of learning directed by their own passion and fascination.

    Some kids will choose science as the core of their self-given course of study. I think that is great! Many will not. Either way, a curriculum is about as useful to an unschooler as a buggy whip is to the owner of an automobile.

  6. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    I’m having trouble figuring out how your kids education differs from that of some third world kid growing up on a farm?

        • Mark W.
          Mark W. says:

          While the skate boarding observation is true, I found the following – “At dinner we evaluate ethical alternatives to de-horning goats.” – to be more telling and important. It implies to me frank and honest discussions from parents who are willing and have more resources to share with their children than parents from third world countries. The less resources part of the equation is the real tragedy.

  7. JKB
    JKB says:

    What they test for in science and math are not the value of studying science and math. They test for facts, often in isolation to the whole, and functional ability. The value of math it is a formal reasoning system. Kids pick up some as they learn the abilities in Algebra, Geometry, etc. But most, even those with undergraduate degrees science don’t come to see the reasoning independent of the capability although they use it.

    Science, especially physics and by subset engineering, is about problem solving and how to get at the critical elements in nature to set up the problem for solution.

    I was struck by these discussions by Richard Feynman regarding his father. The way his father taught him, prepared him for his life as a scientist. His father did not name objects in isolation but posed questions in a manner to encourage Richard to visualize the world. This could be done by any parent and to better effect than the facts in isolation most children are exposed to.

    • Colin
      Colin says:

      Melville was fascinated with science and that is why he could reveal nature to Richard in interesting ways. I can say with absolute certainty that not “any parent” can do this the way either of these Feynman’s (I’m sure Joan too) could.

      I can also say for certainty that talking about goat de-horning is in no way the same as revealing inertial frames with a ball in a wagon. Presumably: one makes you an able goat farmer, the other a world-renowned physicist.

      Facts are interesting though. The “good questions” are in search of finding new facts, and you have to know facts to find other facts and to ask those good questions. I absolutely agree about the reasoning, but facts are also important since the facts embody the current state of knowledge of science (with varying degrees of certainty). Dismissing facts as unimportant is profoundly short-sighted, but so is pretending that science is just about facts. You simply cannot do anything meaningful in science without knowing some subset of known facts. It’s required. And there’s a lot of facts in even the basic levels of the fields of science to occupy someone for years, which is probably why schools tend to the fact teaching.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I wouldn’t dismiss curricula entirely regardless of how kids are educated. I view curricula as an attempt to present knowledge in a complete and logical manner to transfer concepts and ideas to the student. It doesn’t mean everything will be presented perfectly suited to the student’s learning style. However, it should be well organized and referenced. It also doesn’t necessarily have to be followed in an exact order but many principles depend on understanding material previously presented. Also ideas from curricula can be garnered by looking at other curricula on the same subject area. There is no one curricula just as there isn’t one way to learn. Curricula doesn’t need to be demonized but rather just used enough to understand the scope and breadth of a subject area, as a reference, or as a starting point.
    As for asking good questions, you do need a certain amount of broad scientific knowledge to be an engineer. My first job out of university was in R & D. I reported to a PhD and many other members in the department had a PhD. I mostly did the development but I still had to read and understand scientific papers in my industry. Now I know I went to school back in the day before the Internet with the dinosaurs (after Einstein, though) but I still occasionally make a trip to the library, read hard copy books, and use paper and pen occasionally.

  9. CJ
    CJ says:

    “IMAGINATION is more important than knowledge, for knowledge is limited to all we know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world and all there ever will be to know and understand.”


    • Mark K
      Mark K says:

      Here’s my favorite:

      “It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for what this delicate little plant needs more than anything, besides stimulation, is freedom. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”

      — Albert Einstein

      • CJ
        CJ says:

        I say this with the profound passionate, monogamous love of one and only one man for twenty years,

        Dear Mark, YOU just turned me ON!!!

        Ahhhhhhh, brain power….

        Ps. Your earlier metaphor of buggy whip and automobile, I enjoyed so much I can’t say I won’t lift it later!!!! ;-)

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      My favorite quote which I posted to my Brazen Careerist page a couple of years ago –

      “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” – Einstein

      • CJ
        CJ says:

        And, “education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”

        And my all time favorite is “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” (this is the one that always makes me think about my children and my love for them)

  10. Bec Oakley
    Bec Oakley says:

    This idea about broad vs specific knowledge is so interesting because to me it’s at the core of what homeschooling is all about.

    What I found frustrating with the curriculum in the school system was that someone else had decided which topics should be taught in depth and which were okay to skim over. If these happened to align with a kid’s interests and talents then they were engaged and successful learners, if not they were bored or struggled.

    My whole goal with homeschool is to expose the kids to a wider range of topics (which means embracing the ‘broad’) to let them discover their talent and passion, at which point they can dive into specialising in a way that’s useful and meaningful to them.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh. Wow. This is a new way for me to look at school. I think that’s right — the assumption behind school, and even core curriculum in college, is that someone needs to show you a broad range of stuff in order for you to figure out what you like.

      I have to think about this. If people really cannot find the stuff on their own. I am thinking, as I watch myself and people close to me, that we find it on our own because we have huge drive to go to what is interesting to us.

      It’s very hard to find poetry if you don’t care, but it’s everywhere if you are driven to read it.


      • redrock
        redrock says:

        The point might be more that if you do not know about poetry you cannot look for it and therefore not develop an appreciation. If you are never exposed in any way to quantum mechanics you cannot see whether it is of interest to you or not.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          But if that’s really a problem, it’s infinite. We cannot solve it. So we have to think of the problem as linear — if you are exposed to enough, then you can find something you like.

          For example, if you are exposed to something that is not quantum mechanics, it can lead you to quantum mechanics. You just need to get on a path. And I’m not convinced a kid cannot get on that path without being exposed to a broad, school-based curriculum.


          • redrock
            redrock says:

            I did not mean to imply that college is the only path. But college can be (unless it is a truly crappy place) an opportunity to find many different things and get inspiration from unexpected directions because knowledge and scholarship is packed densely. Sometimes this is great, sometimes it might just be overwhelming, and well, sometimes students just drown this opportunity in booze and parties. But the latter can also happen without college and just means that no opportunities are taken anyway no matter where they are all around us.

      • Bec Oakley
        Bec Oakley says:

        Yes, and it’s about timing and opportunity I guess. At school you don’t have the freedom to pounce when an individual kid discovers the things that they’re interested in, to give them the chance to specialise while their interest is piqued.

        I think you do need to show kids what is out there though, to dip their feet in the water so they can choose whether to learn to swim. This exposure doesn’t have to be via prescribed curricula however – the merit of keeping things broad is that you allow exposure to many more areas of potential interest, and the freedom of homeschooling means you can dive in and explore them as deeply as interest, talent and ability allows.

        • Mark W.
          Mark W. says:

          “This exposure doesn’t have to be via prescribed curricula however – the merit of keeping things broad is that you allow exposure to many more areas of potential interest, and the freedom of homeschooling means you can dive in and explore them as deeply as interest, talent and ability allows.”
          I agree. I’d also like to add that by keeping exposure and learning to knowledge broad (at least to a certain degree), discussions with people in other specialties are more easily facilitated and I think there is a greater possibility of making connections across various disciplines to solve problems.

  11. CarolineB
    CarolineB says:

    What a very interesting path you have to your conclusion. My kids follow a self-study homeschool curriculum created by a scientist who doesn’t recommend formal study of science until calculus is completed. 5 of his 6 children that were raised with this method are now scientists and the other is a vet. They were also raised on a farm. His rationale for not allowing formal science before calculus has to do with the need to understand physics before other sciences like chemistry can be properly understood.

  12. Leon Hewer
    Leon Hewer says:

    The things that science has to contribute to learning are critical thinking and the scientific method (are they two things?) These can be applied to any career, and any aspect of life (ok, not homeopathy).
    I can only assume that schools values these things less than, I dunno, learning the periodic table by rote.
    Speaking of grit and determination, I can attest that a youth misspent skateboarding is great for this…

  13. CJ
    CJ says:

    I see this as “things matter when they matter.” these things that involve science on the farm matter for the boys today so they are truly learning the things they real-world-study. It has meaning and depth for them.

    Exposed to the laws of thermodynamics in high school, it was gobbledygook to me. In my UG, I was better at memorizing to pass the tests in chem and by then I really did know algebra, which I didn’t in HS. But, then for my masters and biochem….now it really mattered and was applicable to my own interests and I was lucky enough to have a crazy passionate prof that hand wrote out his explanations with his own drawings and click, the lights went on.

    Schools are great at telling us things we need to learn and we are great at ignoring what we don’t need, at least at the time. Which is why we learn so little from schooling. And, I also think this is why there is such frustration from both sides within the schooldome. Both sides- the students and the knowledge holders are naturally at odds, except maybe at recess.

  14. toastedtofu
    toastedtofu says:

    I think a few of the people in the comments section made excellent points, about broad vs. specific knowledge (and how homeschool kids get to decide for themselves what is important) as well as a commenter who mentioned that you can’t truly understand chemistry until you understand physics, (so why make kids memorize the periodic table when they don’t really know what it means?)

    I think part of your initial post was clouded a bit by your background in business, particularly regarding whether or not it is important to have female scientists. The truth is that science as a general field, is a huge employer, and women can just as easily work in a lab as a technician as they can as a secretary (medical testing, for instance, is a pretty easy 9-5 job) provided they have a degree in a relevant field. So having women in the work force and having female scientists is undeniably linked.

    My partner’s lab is incredibly diverse in age, gender, and race, however all of the non-white non-male team members are from non-western countries. His ex went through aeronautical engineering program, she was one of 3 females to start, and the only one to graduate. When she went and did her masters at the international space university in France, about 1/3 of the students were female, but none of the other female students were from an English speaking western country, very few of them were from the west at all. Women have started to be proportionally represented in biology, but are under represented in physics, math, and engineering.

    All major universities have their own patent office, and (scientific) PhD students are in a unique position because they are able to work on independent projects but also have the university patent office at their disposal, so they can usually get at least one patent their name by the time they graduate.

    I’m not sure what the field of computer science looks like, but I’m guessing most of the people who work under Sheryl Sandberg are male.

    And I buried the lead a bit but here is a (short) video on America and science I think you will find interesting.

    The fact is, America SILL runs on immigrant brain power, and as science is incredibly important for both economic development and technological progress, it is important that we encourage women to pursue degrees in science and technology fields.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      … this definitely mirrors my experience in physics and materials science. ANd maybe science and technical professions are the ultimate test of grit for women.

  15. Carole
    Carole says:

    “Does this count as science? Because none of it’s on the test, so very few kids are learning it.”

    Ha! I love this because it reveals the unspoken rules.

  16. christine
    christine says:

    While i think agriculture should be essential learning for all people, i disagree that scientific progress comes solely from geniuses who succeed regardless of their educational background. those geniuses tend to lead diverse teams of varying abilities who rely on traditional scientific learning to support their research missions.

    as a scientific person, my issue in education is the fact memorization vs critical thinking skills. Not only does this result in generally poor scientific understanding (by the public) but also poor problem solving skills in many other areas.

    i agree that learning to ask good questions is key. I see curriculum as the framework in which to ask those questions in a logical (increasing complexity) fashion.

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