Forced curricula undermines learning. (And you don’t need to teach your kids chemistry.)

One of the most effective ways to show parents that they don’t need to be teachers in order to homeschool is to show parents how completely ridiculous forced curricula is. I internalized this idea when my youngest son was learning to read. I didn’t teach him. But I watched carefully to see how he learned.

He learned a lot from playing video games, but the first time I saw him actually sit down and read, page by page, was in a cab ride on our trip to Las Vegas. The cab was full of booklets advertising clubs with women in crazy, exotic costumes. He was determined to learn how to read those booklets. My first instinct was to tell him to put the book away. But not before I took a picture: self-directed learning.

There is no reading program with Las Vegas smut in it, but you know what? It works. And the best reading program is the program that works. You intuitively know why my son is not reading Dick and Jane. But what you also intuitively know is that forced curricula doesn’t work.

The idea of a common core curricula is developed by experts in testing, not experts in education. Lisa Nielsen, at Innovative Educator, calls the common core forced curricula, and she says it undermines the most important aspect of learning, which is interest-based learning.

Parents support forced curricula by saying that kids need to be well-rounded. But many people challenge the value of the well-rounded student, and it’s clear that even top-tier colleges don’t want well-rounded students.  Still, it’s difficult for a parent to stand up and say “I’m not teaching math.” Or “I’m not teaching science.” (Ironically, though, parents have no problem saying, “I’m not teaching piano. My kid’s not interested in that,” because learning piano teaches the same kind of thinking that learning math does.)

So my favorite way to give myself confidence as a homeschooler is to approach the lameness of curricula on a subject-by-subject basis. And David Bernstein , writing in the Washington Post, presents a list of arguments for why it’s absurd that his kid has to take chemistry in high school. For example:

1. You do not need to learn a specific list of subjects in order to learn general analytic skills.

2. Teaching non-analytic thinkers more science will not help the US to catch up to rest of the world in science.

3. Suffering through classes that are not interesting is not a skill that helps in the real world.

Each of his arguments is independently great. Together, the arguments should convince you that they probably hold true for many students for almost any subject. Physics for example. Calculus for example.

The biggest barrier to parents feeling capable of homeschooling is that they don’t feel capable of teaching all day. But the only time parents need to be a teacher is when they are forcing kids to learn stuff the kids don’t want to learn. Do you know when you need to do that? Never.

Which is why homeschooling is so much easier than people expect.


18 replies
  1. joanna
    joanna says:

    To me education is the passing on of our species’ accumulated knowledge. It is practically sacred. The sciences especially show our gradually improving understanding of the world around us over hundreds of years. What we know now about our physical world is awe-inspiring. That solid physical objects, like a table, are mostly empty space is mind-blowing.

    I doubt many chemistry classes do the subject any justice, but that’s not chemistry’s fault.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      I totally agree – I don’t think one should learn chemistry or physics or math to hone analytical abilities. One should learn them to gain knowledge – at least some basic knowledge of the material. Everybody should know that the atom is the smallest unit of matter (ok, apart from the subatomic world explored at the LHC…), but only about 40% of americans do. But I also find that every science minded person has to know some philosophy, a smattering of ethics, and history.

  2. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I read “Teaching Minds” a few weeks back and he dismisses “subjects” being taught, too. People learn processes–how to describe, how to diagnose, how to evaluate, how to experiment–not from being forced on subjects, but from interests they genuinely hold.

  3. James
    James says:

    Parents have an obligation to teach their children about reality.

    Not the business world, nor civil life, but the very fact of the nature of ourselves. We know more at this juncture in history than we ever did about the grand scale of the universe and the processes that created life. I am talking about the Big Bang and evolution here. And a little basic chemistry, too.

    Surely kids can discover this information on their own, if they are interested. But if they forgo it they will grow up to be like so many people who are infected with magical thinking. And, importantly, who have the right to vote and affect all our futures.

    The problem with the way science is taught in schools is that it dissociates its lessons from everyday life. Chemistry happens in labs. Physics is when you experiment with dropped balls. And many schools lie to students by excluding substantive discussions of evolution.

    But chemistry is not what happens in a lab. Chemistry is us.

    Science is relevant: as relevant as learning about sex, or how to drive, or the basics of our government.

    At the least, kids should at least be told the basic truths and given a little background. How many galaxies are there? Stars? Where do we fit in? How does DNA work? What is a molecule? And so on.

    If they are interested, they can take it from there.

  4. christy
    christy says:

    Penelope, you said, “3. Suffering through classes that are not interesting is not a skill that helps in the real world.”

    I refer you to your post/s on your other blog about business meetings. Particularly board meetings. One could argue that suffering through corporate America’s endless adoration of pointless meetings is indeed a skill.

    Of course, that assumes that this is the life one actually wants to live.

  5. karelys
    karelys says:

    My brother is great at skateboarding. The other day we were talking about how I saw him build this great table that he designed, a very uncommon table, and how my confidence for unschooling grew.

    All their lives my brothers (twins) struggled in school. The arty twin who built the table graduated high school late. The other one never did. It breaks my heart because I know it looks bad but it wasn’t a problem with the kid. But with everything else really.

    My brother uses physics and math and chemistry when he’s doing his job (he works with wine) and his art (he paints and builds and draws) and even when riding his bike. He knows how to fix cars. I am amazed at the amount of science he uses everyday but he doesn’t know it. It’s all intuitive.

    And that’s how I want my kid to learn. I don’t care if he can never recognize that he is using right angles or the Pythagorean theorem. In the end, whether he’s working for himself or someone is writing his paycheck, people just want results. They want results so bad that sometimes they don’t care about the process. And that gets us into iffy moral territory but that’s another can of worms.

  6. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    I think a small reason why forced curriculum is still a thing is because misguided analytics who enjoy the general subject matter make non-analytics feel stupid, mostly only by accident. This then makes non-analytics fear the opinions of these people to such an extent that an inner parent forms in every non-analytic’s head that tells them that “kids need these subjects so that they will have a chance to become smarter than I ever got the chance to be, so that they can be more like that analytic person.” This is a nice thought, but the speaker is not being true to themself, or the other qualities people have that analytics often lack.

    • Daniel Baskin
      Daniel Baskin says:

      I’m so sorry for getting distracted at this last thought without even directly addressing the post. (Also, I’m sorry for the habit of double-posting.)

      I just want to let you know that this homeschooling blog affects how I teach when I teach middle school. When I read these posts, it encourages me to go with my gut as far as atypical conventions of how to help kids learn.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Daniel, it’s so nice to hear that! Also, you are a great commenter on this blog, and I like knowing that you’re a teacher. I like knowing that we have that perspective filtering through the conversation. Thanks.


    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Daniel, I’m going to take this comment one step further and say I liked and found insightful your post regardless of whether or not it directly addressed Penelope’s post. Tangential and related posts are welcome in my opinion. I think Penelope would agree.
      And I like that while you teach middle school, you are able to learn and transfer some things you learn here to the classroom. School isn’t going away anytime soon (just as homeschooling isn’t going to replace school anytime soon) so in the meantime transferring knowledge and ideas on education on what works and doesn’t work is a good thing in my opinion.

  7. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    I think it is crucially important that people have a basic understanding of scientific principles. Not for something like balancing a chemical equation on a test. But to evaluate political issues and claims in the media. For example, are the risks of fracking worth the economic benefits? Can a woman’s body reject rape sperm?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      If you ask any science professor they will tell you that incoming freshmen do not have a basic understanding of math or science. High school does not teach that. Even the good high schools. In fact, in the math post I linked to there’s a quote from a math professor saying that the knowledge you get in high school, even if you take calculus, is so spare and meaningless that kids may as well not take the classes.

      And seriously, if you are not teaching your kid about how babies are made and what rape is before they do high school biology, then you are in trouble.


  8. Erica
    Erica says:

    My favourite time at school was middle school. It is the most free and pluralistic and accommodating of individual’s interests (at least at my school it was). It was also the only time that really exploited the potential for learning different skills in an integrated way. Why shouldn’t maths, biology, ecology, history and geography all be learnt while ‘studying’ the Amazon for example. High school drove me nuts with how abstractedly separate everything was – and how work loads prevented self initiated learning. A physics experiment would result in a key equation that I could understand and value and then we would be told it was also the equivalent of another. Memorise it. GAH. If you came from a Calculus class and had learnt half the maths necessary to see the beginning of the equation manipulation it was so frustrating to leave things uninvestigated.

    The other gripe I have with High School is just how untrue the classifying of everyone is. It happens just as you are building your understanding of yourself and then lasts into your twenties. It messes people up. It can be demoralising or aggrandising. Being “smart” or not really isn’t useful. It seems to me to really be about speed and each person’s speed varies according what they find challenging.

    To home-school or not is a tricky (and currently irrelevant) question for me. Some teachers leave a long lasting positive impression, being told to read a book can be an unexpected delight and exposure to ideas can be useful long after the event. Some things too are simply helpful to know for living alongside others, getting their jokes and references and enriching conversation in everyday life. I notice that having not been allowed to watch Disney as a kid I’m different to a lot of my peers. I don’t mind it but it’s noticeable. My brother conciously ‘studied’ sport so that he could talk about something at lunch. Perhaps if society was less homogeneous that sort of thing wouldn’t cause a problem. As it is not knowing something everyone else does can be really alienating. School – to a degree – helps with that.

    I suppose a balance is ideal. A friend of mine who home-schooled from 5 to 11 and 13-15 and went to school for the remainder is one of the most emotionally balanced and entrepreneurial people I know. She structures her life with freedom and acts confidently in her best interest. I’m only starting to learn to get off the rail road tracks of dictated life structure

  9. Sarah L
    Sarah L says:

    Oh, I’d hug you if I could! I needed to read this today. That and the post on math. And plenty other, actually. Not getting much else done today, to be honest, but I’m so glad I found your blog.

  10. Kathy Donchak
    Kathy Donchak says:

    The reason school districts purchase curriula is the misguided notion that giving a teacher a step by step guide to linear knowledge will ensure success for students. They somehow think that providing such a tool will guarantee that the method will be taught with complete integrity and that somehow every student learns in the same way. It is absurd.

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