Billy and Joel are both third graders.
Billy sells candy bars out of his backpack, smuggling a stash of candy for his classmates to purchase during lunch and recess.
He’s eager to know if his business is profitable, so he writes down how much he’s spending on bulk candy bars, and how much he’s earning with each sale.
To understand how much money he’s making, he needs to do addition and subtraction. To predict how much money he’s going to make next week, or how much candy he should invest in with his next purchase, he needs to do multiplication, division, and fractions.
Today’s earnings x 5 = projected earnings for next week.
Today’s earnings x.75 = projected earnings when one class goes on a field trip on Friday.
Then there’s Joel. Joel is only getting exposure to math through Common Core worksheets. Every day in math class, he sits down for a droning lesson, then fills out a worksheet full of decontextualized problems.
Each week Joel feels more and more resentment towards all the boring numbers on the page, the annoying calculations the third-grade curriculum is making him do. His resistance toward math is building as the school year progresses.
He doesn’t see the point of any of this. He’d pay money to get out of it (but he isn’t running a business, so he doesn’t have any).
The predominant thing he’s learning about math is that it’s unpleasant.
The core difference?
Billy is learning math in context. He’s learning math as a tool to use towards his goals – and in that context, he’s discovering that math is wonderful and fascinating. He can manipulate numbers to predict all sorts of things – and each of those things is something he cares about.
Joel is learning math by coercion – he’s only doing problems because a teacher told him to. Joel might be amazing at math if he were given half a chance to like it, but because he’s being forced into it, he’s growing to hate it – so much so that he might avoid it for the rest of his life.
School teaches everything out of context
Joel is learning (or failing to learn) math the same way most kids learn most subjects – completely out of context, because a teacher told them they must.
That’s how traditional school is structured – as a long list of have-to-dos, structured into a standardized curriculum everyone must follow whether it applies to their goals or not.
Kids who do well in school are pushed by teachers and guidance counselors towards the requirements for getting into an elite college, whether that’s what they want to do with their first four years post-high school or not.
Regardless of interests, kids get funneled down a very one-size-fits-all path, the general requirements of a “standard education.”
That’s a terrible way for kids to learn. They come to hate the topics they’re being taught, because they don’t see the value and it feels like a waste of time. Kids have no context for how the things they’re learning are going to relate to their life after they graduate from school, or ever be useful.
Which, if we’re being honest, quite often they won’t be.
The best way to learn is in context of your goals
Not every child needs to learn the same things. Each kid’s goals are unique; their education should be, too.
Not every child wants to go to Stanford or Harvard. Some kids want to start businesses, or become professional writers, or become dog trainers, or publish books for a living. Their education should feel like it’s setting them up for that.
Not every author needs to understand advanced math. They should be spending their time on the things they care about, and if they do end up learning advanced math, it should be in context of their own goals – “I want to write about X, and I need to understand algebra in order to do that.”
Of course, some kids change their minds a lot, and what they’re interested in focusing on now might not be what they end up wanting to do later. But that’s okay – by learning to their interests, they’re learning how to learn about the things they need to pursue those interests, and that ability to learn can be transferred to any new interest they have in future.
If a high schooler wants to go to an Ivy League school, they’re beholden to the school’s admissions requirements. They’ll need to take AP classes and score 5 on their end-of-year exams, and get test scores and grades that meet that school’s standards. That’s okay – if their goal is an Ivy League education, then prioritizing the Common Core requirements is part of working towards those goals.
For everyone else, the Common Core standards should be approached from a “first principles” perspective on where each child is trying to go.
If Billy wants to be a businessman, he should be learning the skills required to get him there – grammar to help him write stronger business communications; math to help him manage his finances and make projections; reading to expand his knowledge in the realm of business.
If Joel wants to be an artist, he should be learning art history and color theory and practicing his painting, not wasting his time on algebra he’s never going to use (unless he wants to understand the mathematics of art, in which case he’ll likely fall down the mathematical rabbit hole of his own accord, because he’s so fascinated by what he’s learning and the doors it unlocks for him).
If another child wants to build rockets, she’ll need to learn first about mathematics and physics – get the basics memorized and understood – before she’s ready to go land an interview with a rocket scientist to pitch herself for an internship. Rarely, if these skills are framed as essential to her goals, will she have to be badgered to do so.
How to help your kids build an education around their goals
Every Common Core standard should be re-examined by parents and teachers through the lens of a child’s personal passions. “What is the academic standard that my kid needs to meet to achieve their personal goals?”
Kids are going to need some of the Common Core subjects (math, grammar) for any goal, but some subjects are more important than others. Aligning the skills kids learn and practice to the pursuits that are meaningful to them results in contextual, uncoerced, cooperative learning.
Everything about a kid’s education should be built around their goals. Subjects should be covered to the extent that they’re valuable to a kid’s goals – anything irrelevant should be ignored, so time can be spent focusing on things that align.
Start by asking your kid first what they want to accomplish; then reverse-engineer the education required to accomplish that end.
Your child is an individual, and they deserve an individualized education. The raw set of skills and pre-requisites required to follow their passions are what they should spend their time working on. Don’t smother your kid’s innate passions with contextless prerequisites, as happened to Joel. Give your kid the kind of education Billy had: learning about things they care about, in service of their goals.