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What We Should Know
By Nathanael Schildbach

What kids should know
Photo © Shutterstock

People ask me what I “teach” my kids in various subjects. What are you doing for science? What about math? We exchange stories. We exchange resources. We exchange other people’s stories and URLs and hunches and psychic moments and bad vibes and Sasquatch sightings, all related to what our kids should know and learn and need to function in this world (whatever that means to each of us.) So the big question is: Exactly what do these kids need to know? How does a home educating parent prepare their kid for the life that’s ahead of them?

An easy out ––and I’ve taken it –  is to look to some authority for the answer. I’ve looked at curriculum frameworks and books and websites on the standard things a kid needs to know by grade. I’ve read books by other homeschoolers and seen what they did with their kids and other homeschoolers who talk in generic terms about what kids in general should know.

People with less time homeschooling will ask me thinking I know something, or having read something I’ve written on the topic think that my ability to write coherent sentences means I have some ability to design curriculum, or the fact that I have a Masters in Education probably should mean I have some ability to design curriculum (and, shhhh, don’t tell anyone, but in fact I do…..)

All of us come at this from our own perspectives. Not some authoritative, scientific fact that we’re operating out of, but what we think is the answer to those two very subjective questions – what do they need to know and how do we prepare them for their futures.

I know, I know, let’s not get too cuckoo esoteric and start throwing out references to Paolo Freire and Gramsci, but let’s face it, no matter who figures this out, they are just expressing their own opinion. The major difference is where you fall on the spectrum of deluding yourself into believing you know what you’re talking about.

You can even do research to back up your claims or write all the curriculum you want and create the most elaborate educational schemes you can think of, but ultimately, no matter what anyone says, they’re basing this work on some sort of perspective/opinion/hunch/roll of the dice.

And that’s all good and well but what has this all got to do with what my kids are supposed to learn and how they’re going to get into Harvard/Stanford/University of Oregon?

How about a practical example? I like practical examples; I like to learn from real life. So, for example, I like baseball. Okay, I’m obsessed with baseball. I complain about how short the season is. I actually know how to calculate slugging percentage. It’s a sickness; someday I may soon find myself sniffing the ink on The Bill James Handbook.

So, after seeing the contracts pitchers were getting this year, I started thinking about my eight-year-old son. He plays baseball, got into it because his older brother is obsessed with it, although in reality I don’t think he has any long range plans to win the Cy Young Award or anything. But he is left-handed. Left-handed pitchers, as are left-handed people in general, rarer than right-handed pitchers. A good left-handed pitcher is more effective against a left-handed batter than a right-handed one, and a good left-handed pitcher is hard to find. But fie upon me, I was an errant knave and when my eight-year-old started playing, he didn’t want to wear a glove on his right hand, he wanted it on his left like his brother and everyone else he knew, so I let him and he trained himself to throw right-handed. This, I realized too late, was something he needed to know, to throw left-handed. I had failed him. His future prospects as a mediocre left-handed pitcher still bringing in $11 million a year and upgrading my house and car in appreciation for denying him his request to throw right- handed were slim to none. Now all he could hope for was either making $11 million a year as a mediocre right-handed pitcher or, say, $17 million a year as an effective one. So that is one example of what the kids are supposed to learn in order for them to get on in life.

But, that’s not a realistic example, you’re thinking; what kind of a nut really does that? (And Kimberly, the kids spending that time pitching in the backyard in the snow, I had no desire to do it, it was all their idea, and I don’t know who told them that Roger Clemens’ dad loved him best of all his children.)

So math...let’s take math, shall we? We all need math. You can’t argue with math – it’s like vitamins or voting. I pushed math to the limit in school. I was on the fast track of math courses, all the way from Algebra I up through Calculus. It was good for me, I needed it and, although I never have found a use for that number grid-crosshairs thing and those equations that made different shaped curvy lines, it all came in handy when I got to college and took – oh, no wait...I didn’t take any math courses in college. Hmmm, well, it comes in handy at work, when, well, when I use those Algebra I skills. And set up those equations in Excel. And use the calculator. So I did learn something I really needed to know and it turned out to be largely superfluous to my life and long term goals.

Seriously, we all do need math skills. I’m not saying you can get through life without knowing how to add, at least not very easily, and so then the big questions arise again. What do these kids need to know and how do I prepare them for life? In my case, I don’t see either of my older sons being mathematicians (we’ll see about the youngest one – he has to get over writing with his right arm immobilized.) They don’t really seem interested in it. I’ve heard of these kids who really think things like Fibonacci numbers and fractals and things are fascinating. My kids know about them; we’ve even gone out looking for Fibonacci in nature. They just don’t care. In retrospect, neither did I. I never planned on using math in my life beyond the basics of balancing a checkbook and understanding how to solve for a variable and to see if the honey in a jar is cheaper than the honey in bulk. I did it anyway. I’m sure those hours of time spent in tedium were well worth it, especially since I’ve retained so much of it. I did it because I thought I should do it.

So what do my kids need to know of math? Basics. They pick up things along the way as they need them. Some other kids? You want to be a statistician? Astrophysicist? Go for it. But it needs a context within your life, each one of us as individuals. Not what the generic person should know as of 2007 because you might need to know it and it’s on the test and some bureaucrat said so and did we mention it’s on the test?

My oldest son knows baseball statistics. He gets them. But only in context of what it means about the player and how he can use it to compare them against others. The practical purpose. No math for math’s sake here.

So what if they decide at 16 they want to be astrophysicists and up until then they held fast to their dream of being a ninja and you just never pushed them to figure out why 1 to the 0 power is -1 or whatever that is? Well, have you ever had to learn something for a reason and figured it out? My mother, now in her 70s, figured out how to use a computer, not in high school, but later in life. She probably should have learned how to use them in high school, but the entire society failed her by not having invented them yet, so what could she have done? (Granted, there probably was a bit of poor planning on her part in there somewhere.)

So where does this leave us? I haven’t given a single answer, and have in fact insulted mathematics, one of the cornerstones of knowledge in our universe. And that’s what you get. There are no easy answers to those two questions, but there is a slight tweaking of them that makes sense after all of this.

About all I can offer is the realization that these aren’t two questions, but one question with the answer after it: Exactly what do these kids need to know? Whatever will prepare them for the life that’s ahead of them.

The big questions are really created by the answer. And those questions can’t be answered by looking to the generic, non-existent little graphical representation of a person that is often alluded to. Only each person can answer the question for him or herself. And as parents, it is our job to help.

Nathanael Schildbach lives and learns in western Massachusetts with his wife, children, dog, cat and some racing pigeons.

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