Saturday, March 04, 2006


An interesting post from David Friedman defending "unschooling," which is how he raises his own kids. I think there's something to what he says, although I'd bet that a lot of his experience springs from the fact that his kids are obviously smart to begin with (not surprising considering their family history), Friedman's home is full of intellectual stimulation, etc.

Anyway, all of the following strikes me as largely correct:
One of the assumptions built into the conventional version of K-12 schooling, private and public, is that there is some subset of human knowledge, large enough to occupy most of twelve years of school, that everyone needs to know. That assumption is false. There is a very short list of skills–reading, writing or typing, and simple arithmetic are the only ones that occur to me–that almost everyone will find worth learning. Beyond that, education involves learning things, but not any particular things. The standard curriculum is for the most part an arbitrary list of what happens to be in fashion–the subjects everyone is required to pretend to learn.

Consider, as examples, English composition, American history, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Each will prove very useful so some people, occasionally useful to more, and almost entirely useless to quite a lot. And, although practically every high school graduate is supposed to have learned each of those things, many, probably a majority, have not--as anyone who has taught college freshmen can testify.

A second assumption is that the way for children to learn things is to be told "this is what you must learn today," assigned some reading, and sat down to listen to a teacher. One result is that children spend most of their time being told things they have no interest in knowing. Another, given the diversity of interests and abilities, is that a third of the pupils in a classroom are bored because they already know what is being taught, a third are bored because they are completely lost, and only the middle third are, with luck, listening, understanding and learning. A sufficiently good teacher can improve those numbers somewhat–but sufficiently good teachers are scarce.

One observed result is that most children regard education as unpleasant work, to be avoided when possible. Another is that schools spend six years teaching things–arithmetic, say–that the average kid could learn in a year or two. If he wanted to. A third is that we end up with high school graduates many, perhaps a majority, of whom do not actually know many of the things they have spent all those years pretending to learn.

There is at least one more thing wrong with the conventional model. Judging sources of information on internal evidence is a very important intellectual skill. In the classroom, that skill is anti-taught. The pupil is told things by two authorities–the teacher and the textbook–and his job is to believe what they say. Here again, a sufficiently good teacher may be able to overcome the logic of the setting and teach some degree of critical thinking–but here again, sufficiently good teachers are rare.



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