We’re Trying To Do “The Wrong Thing Right” in Schools
Will Richardson

I homeschool. I have a degree in education. 90% of the second did not prepare me for the first. I had to unlearn a lot of what I knew about learning and teach myself new methods.

During my own child’s 1.125 year foray into the traditional classroom (I had him at home K-3; 4th at this school had gone well enough, this was 5th), I was appalled to get a letter home complaining that my son could not complete in 3 minutes the minimum number of math problems required. Note: right or wrong was not the issue, merely the number complete. When I spoke to the teacher, I asked how many he got wrong. He said, “Well, none, but….”

I cut him off. “If he worked at a factory, and he made the most widgets, but 30% had to be rejected because they were made incorrectly, how long would he have a job?” He looked — blank. “Do we want him to do math fast, or correctly?” Still — blank.

“That’s what I thought,” I answered. I went to the office, withdrew my son, and called the home study department. He was back home. (To be honest: we had had other issues with this teacher, so this was a last straw, not a first.)

He’s a 9th grader now. He still doesn’t do math fast, but he does it correctly. That’s his thing. To do it right. An entire sheet of problems shuts him down; a select few to show what he can do is no problem. If his teacher had been able to focus on that, my son might have done very well in traditional school; might still be there.

I know I’m lucky; I can be here to teach him, and not all families can. I have been able to take what he loves or wants to learn more about and teach him “what’s required” through those. He may only do 10 problems for an Algebra lesson, instead of the 30 I was told to do, but he does each one correctly. He may not answer on paper all the questions at the end of each section of his history book, but he can tell me the major events, the major players, and the causes & effects.

For some reason, we started demanding impersonal, quantifiable outcomes to prove learning, but real learning doesn’t work that way. It should be personal, and not all values can be represented by numbers. We want them to know this bucket list of things beyond basic skills, but what are they really learning from it if they just aren’t interested? We spend all this time trying to show them, say, the life of the pilgrims, but what if they want to build and program robots?

People have told me that given a choice, kids wouldn’t learn anything, but that hasn’t been my experience. My son has taught himself programming. He taught himself the basics of Trigonometry because it allows him to write better code. He has studied aspects of astrophysics and the history of space exploration because it enables him to do more in the game, Kerbal Space Program. He keeps up with current events because politics can affect technological advancements, and he foresees a career for himself in technology.

Yes, I have to introduce all the topics related to the state standards, and I have to turn in evidence of his understanding or mastery of said topics, but we do as much as we can his way.

Apart from that, I taught him basic skills. I taught him how to find information and how to determine if the information is from a credible source. And now, he teaches himself.

And *that* should be the real goal of education, IMHO. Not how to answer some number of questions, correct or not, in 3 minutes, but to teach children how to teach themselves.

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