A mom on a homeschooling email list I take part in responded to a post of mine with a question. I thought it was a great question, and I wanted to share my answer. Her question:
I’m writing bc of your response to X the other day regarding wanting her kids to cover standards…
You said “the belief that kids have to “hit standards.” … is really completely untrue. If all you wanted was to make sure that your kids mastered K-6 standards, you could just wait until they were 12 and teach it all to them in a matter of months.”
I really would like to believe this, but I’m wondering where this idea comes from.
As with most homeschooling “wisdom,” I don’t have a source to cite about this. However, from what I’ve seen with my kids, kids I know, and kids I’ve heard of at conferences and through other parents, it does seem to be true. Aside
from unaddressed learning disabilities, an intelligent, healthy, pre-teen child seems fully capable of learning most of the skills taught in elementary school quite quickly.
If you think about it, it makes sense:
Most of math taught in elementary school is stuff that kids who are living a rich lifestyle can derive for themselves when they’re ready. (In fact, this is how ancient mathematicians did it, right?)
My second child entered public school in 6th grade after very little math “instruction” (he did like to occasionally do math booklets but almost exclusively was interested in geometry). His teacher complimented me on “how well I taught him math”! Why? Well, their first homework was to learn how if you subtract a larger number from a smaller number, you get a negative number. This is something any kid who has been playing with math for fun can simply derive for herself (as my child did). Most of elementary math is only “hard” for kids because it’s being pushed on them when they’re not developmentally ready and without any fun attached.
Then there’s literacy skills:
Assuming your child learned to read (almost all kids will learn if they live in a household where books are loved and shared, whether or not they are taught), almost everything that is “taught” to kids in elementary school is something they would do anyway once they’re ready.
For example, my child’s English teacher made her students go through every single book they read and find “inferences” in each chapter. This was a pointless exercise for kids like mine. Any child who has read lots of stories and been read to and had lots of discussions about stories can do this. But most elementary school kids, unfortunately, are only hearing stories in school. And they seldom have an in-depth discussion with their families about much of anything. So the people who devise curriculum think that kids need to be “taught” this. Yet most homeschooled kids would just figure it out.
So what use are standards to homeschoolers?
There are two advantages that standards offer to homeschoolers who are living rich learning lifestyles, I believe. One is that you can sometimes use them if you suspect that your child might have a learning disability. But the problem is, since they don’t take into account natural variations in development, people often use them to over-diagnose learning disabilities.
The other advantage of standards is the actual content—I’ve used them to remind myself about topics that we might want to interest our kids in. So I think it’s valuable to look at standards and remember that kids should learn about ancient civilizations, for example, or electricity basics. But I found, to tell you the truth, that we went so far beyond what most standards call for in our areas of interest, and in our areas of non-interest, the kids don’t really retain much that they’re taught in elementary school anyway.
But truth be told, I’m not a pure unschooler:
I’m not a proponent of unschooling in any dogmatic way, but I think that parents’ understandings of their kids’ learning and intelligence has been poisoned, frankly, by the emphasis on hitting standards earlier and earlier.
Every bit of research of eminent adults has shown that many of them were considered “stupid” as kids. If you create one timeline of learning and expect everyone to achieve every point on it at the same age, you’re going to set a lot of kids up for failure.
It’s the educator’s job to set students up for success:
I’d rather set kids up for success, and raise them to believe that they can fill in any gaps that are there when they are ready to. I’m watching my 17-year-old doing this with great success right now. I’m not saying that I wasn’t really scared that we’d put out uneducated kids at the end of this (I’m at that scary point with my 13-year-old right now), but watching the 17-year-old blossom and go for his passions has been wonderful.
Had I focused too much on standards and not on letting him follow his passions and develop his strengths, I believe that he may have become a “safer” student, but certainly not a more passionate, wide-ranging, and well-educated one. He’s apply to college this fall. I hope that the admissions committees see his achievements as I do: the success of rejecting the safety of standards for the joy of learning and following one’s passions.