Kids suffer long-term from schoolwork that doesn’t interest them

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.

25 replies
  1. christy
    christy says:

    Penelope, I’m wondering what you think about polymaths? People who are predisposed to be interested in (and good at) a wide variety of things. (formerly known as Renaissance Man)

    For a true polymath (and, imo, if you put on your website that you’re a polymath, you probably aren’t one), specializing doesn’t work. It’s boring and inane and a kind of death in itself.

    But I’m more curious about what you think??

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, in the Myers Briggs personality types, INTPs would be polymaths. And if you look at what the advice is to those people, it’s always focus. The advice is that if you don’t focus and stick to something you will never accomplish anything.

      At our core we each want to contribute to the people around us. We each want to make a difference. Society if made for specialists. We each have roles. If you refuse to focus on a role then you have no role and you are irrelevant to the people around you. And I don’t know anyone who thinks that feels good.


      • Greg
        Greg says:

        My advice to other INTPs is to pick a single question or problem and try to understand it better than anyone else. This will probably require a multidisciplinary approach, but you should limit your interest in these disciplines to their ability to shed light on your single question.

        Preferably, pick a problem that people are willing to pay to have analyzed.

        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          This is totally incredible advice. The best advice I’ve ever heard for an INTP.

          And other people who feel they cannot do just one thing should also pay attention to this advice. It’s the idea that we have a choice: we can focus on a type of thing we do, a type of thing we think about, a problem we solve, a place in an assembly line (family, business, social setting, whatever) that we fill. I love this advice. Thanks Greg.


          • Greg
            Greg says:

            Thanks, though I’ve only began to think about it that way after reading your specialisation posts. So I’m grateful for your posts.

            One further point. The problem itself doesn’t really matter as long as you can get paid to solve it. Any problem you can get paid to solve is sufficiently complex that you can spend decades exploring from different angles. Don’t try to find the perfect problem, just dig deeper.

          • Daniel Baskin
            Daniel Baskin says:

            Yay for the INTP nod! Love the advice! While you can’t tell an INTP to stop thinking globally, and grabbing knowledge from here and everywhere, you can have them focus it all on solving a single problem…just saying the same thing you said.

          • Amy
            Amy says:

            As an INTP, I really appreciate this advice. I have spent much of my life floating, trying to combine my interests so I can indulge in them all. It is very hard to pick a direction, painful even, but still more difficult to attempt to focus on multiple goals at once.

            I see this in my 12 yr-old daughter as well. Homeschooling allows her to follow her passions full-time, but there aren’t enough hours in the day.

          • christy
            christy says:

            Thanks to both of you (Greg and Penelope). Penelope, I honestly didn’t know that INTP was the polymath personality type. It’s what I am. Funny, that.

            Greg, I love your advice. I wish someone had said that to me years ago.

            Now must go off and figure out how to implement most effectively…

  2. karelys
    karelys says:

    wow, this post is brutal.

    In the beginning I was thinking: Of course I can’t compete with those people who are taking Adderall (Which is to the mind what steroids is to the muscles)!

    But really, it’s already been written and talked about how Adderall (and steroids) just lead down a bad path. It takes a lot more work and a lot more guts (and lots of puking stomach acid due to nervousness) to chose your own path and follow it.

    Sometimes I think I am way past that stage because now I have bills to pay, a kid to raise, etc. But I am so sad to give this example to my little one: “everyone else’s agenda first even if it kills you from no sleep, no joy, too much drugs/caffeine.”

  3. Jared Cosulich
    Jared Cosulich says:

    How something is presented is just as, if not more important, than the intrinsic qualities of the activity.

    If they are showing interest in writing vs math it may be because the math was presented in a boring fashion.

    As far as I’m concerned as long as they’re engaged and learning then it doesn’t matter too much what they’re learning. As you noted it’s far more important that they develop the skills and motivation to learn anything they want or need to learn in the future.

    That said you might want to expose them to some of the math related content here:

    It’s all based around trial-and-error environments with tight feedback looks. Basically the requirements for flow. Not guaranteed that they’ll enjoy it, but they might.

  4. Mel
    Mel says:

    As far as I can tell, my boys’ number one interest is playing in the dirt. The 5-year-old also loves to read. I guess as they get older, they’ll figure out what their interest/love is. I am excited/nervous to find out.

    I wish I knew what to specialize in…you’d think at 39, I’d know. I took the Meyers-Briggs test and the job suggestions were horrible, tedious jobs.

  5. Andi
    Andi says:

    Penelope, what do you think about kids who are “good” at something, but who aren’t necessarily enthused over it? Imagine a child who plays great basketball, but don’t want to pursue that course, for example. Seems a kid might get pigeonholed early on as showing interest in a subject as opposed to aptitude — clearly not the same things. And doesn’t your theory leave little room for the opposite to be true? For instance, I love math, but golly am I crummy at it!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Specializing has to do with time spent doing it. So a lot of people *say* they love something, but spend very little time doing it. Writing a novel is a common example. People say they really want to write but they don’t have the time. But people simply do not say that about something they love to do. They make time. They do that thing all the time.

      Someone might have poor aptitude for dance but strong aptitude for choreography. So the hours spent dancing, for love of dance, will morph into the thing the person has talent for.

      Putting in hours and hours of practice, for anything, even math, reveals what you really love. If you are bad at math, it’s probably not math you love. Few people are passionate enough to do 10,000 hours of practice in something they are bad at.

      Also, few people are brave enough to admit what they are bad at and what they are good at. It’s limiting. At the core, the conversation is about death, to be honest. The things you will not be in this lifetime.


      • Andi
        Andi says:

        Yikes, that’s scary. But direct & true. I think what I love about math (as opposed to math itself) is it’s logic. I know if I work at it long enough, a correct & true answer will emerge at some point. It is solid & trustworthy. So you’re right. I don’t relish the prospect of working problems for 10,000 hours, but I love knowing that someone else has already done so, & that the answers they found are concrete & utterly reliable. Would that be consistent with my INFP personality?

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “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.”

    I think a better link here is as it was done on children (age 9). As it turns out, the results of this study are “congruent” with Guglielmino’s findings which were done on adults in the 1970’s. There are many good reasons cited in this study why the self-directed learning path is a good one to be on.

  7. Bec Oakley
    Bec Oakley says:

    Yesterday my son built a school in Minecraft.

    It sits in the middle of a city that he built in collaboration with his brother and two other kids from the other side of the world that he’s never met, a city so elaborate that it’s taken me a week to tour around. There’s an airport, hotels, an animal hospital, shops, mini golf course, theme parks, research lab… all fully operational and created completely from scratch (from pretty rudimentary resources), unprompted and without any input from adults. They’ve even invented their own laws and currency.

    And now, a school… made so that, in my son’s words, “they can all teach each other what they’re best at”. Each of the kids is running a class to share their skills with the other three.

    I think the thing I love most is that they each quickly identified their own areas of specialisation, and they admire and value the talents of the others. In fact my son said “we made a much more interesting city because everyone has different things that they can do”.

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      This makes me feel awful for asking a kid (high school) to stop playing Minecraft and do his social studies paper (this was still when I was a substitute teacher). Of course, I was just following my instructions, but I didn’t know any better. I now have young family that does stuff similar to this. There is so much in the world worth learning that isn’t a single abstract school subject.

      I’m building my first instrument at the moment, a cello, and I’m having to *actually* learn (in the actual, deep, truly conceptual sense) a lot of math in the process. I wish I could teach at a school where kids were grouped by better categories than age group and closest geographical localities (but I’m preaching to the choir), so I would only have to teach music to introverts.

  8. Lori
    Lori says:

    “[B]ecause 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.”

    This. I have an essay I tore out of the Chicago Trib years and years ago, written by a consultant who helped wealthy parents get their kids into Ivy League schools. He said the kids had been pushed so much all their lives, they graduated from high school not even knowing what interested them.

  9. marta
    marta says:

    I’m still a bit confused about what you mean by specialization.

    I had the traditional “well-rounded” education. I was a good student, preferring history and languages over maths and physics, but nevertheless learning and still remembering, after all these years, the core principles of both. I can help my school aged kids and understand the basics of science documentaries or discussions among “scientist” friends. I was a good swimmer but never a competitive one. I have enough strength and confidence to pull me through during one or two occasions in which I had to literally swim for my life. I took 2 or 3 years of cello between the ages of 10-12, which I hated, that now seem valuable when trying to figure out the music sheets my kids bring home to study.
    I majored in history and did some paid research jobs for a couple of professors. I’m now 42, have 3 kids and a 4th due in 2 months, and for around 15 years have been earning a living doing translations from English and Italian into Portuguese. All the subjects I’ve come across during my life are proving to be important and valuable in my job. If I had specialized early on in languages, or translation technics, for example, I would have missed all the messing around with and traveling and reading about different subjects that have helped, IMHO, build a strong and wide view on the world.

    I don’t want my kids to be the best violinist or the best skater or the best mathmatician or the best ballet dancer- most kids i know who do specialize at a very young age are indeed boring and, frankly speaking, narrow-minded. Kids will be kids – always experimenting, always letting go of something to pick up another, completly different, thing afterwards. They will focus and unfocus and focus again, faster and easier than you might wish them to.
    But that’s what growing up means, I guess. Embracing the world, never shunning any opportunity. Living to the fullest.

    Marta from Portugal

  10. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    I won’t argue with the idea that almost everyone can benefit from cultivating greater focus in life. Nor the idea that what is most likely to lead to economic and social success is to get awesome at something–getting awesome is something you do by focusing, and persisting.

    The only thing that worries me is parents pressuring their kids to specialize too early. How early is too early is going to depend on the child.

    Let kids grow as nature sees fit, and as their natures direct them.

    Let kids be kids, and explore the world with no purpose in mind. Any purpose shapes perception and colors the world that the mind builds out of sense impressions. Childhood is the one chance people get to have this experience of true freedom before the world starts making demands on them.

    Focus is good. Good things are worth waiting for–have a little patience. Let specialization emerge from your child’s unfettered exploration. And have faith that it will. Because it will.

  11. whattosay
    whattosay says:

    Your kids are not learning math probably because you’re not able to teach it in an interesting way. Instead of neglecting it, you should probably hire a competent tutor. Because math is not just a tool for brain development, up to certain extent it constitutes basic literacy. Not to mention it’s essential in other areas like computer science and physics. And it you think those are dull, I encourage you (and your kids) to read anything from Richard Feynman.

    Kids should specialize but after they’re exposed to a broad spectrum of possibilities. How would you know that you don’t like history, if you never read anything about it? And you may be interested to understand the basic laws of mechanics that you encounter in everyday life, but without the basic math tool kit, you’ll be seriously handicapped in your attempts.

  12. Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot
    Annabel Candy, Get In the Hot Spot says:

    I have one kid blogging (aged 7) – I am sorely tempted to get speech recognition software to help her with that. I use it (Dragon speaking softly) so why shouldn’t she?

    Then another kid (14) is making how to play minecraft vids and sharing them on YouTube.

    It’s fine as long as they get plenty of exercise and fresh air too.

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