What do kids really need to learn?

What do kids really need to learn?

What do kids really need to learn?

Maybe it’s because it’s February. Maybe it’s my focus on being intentional and reevaluating everything right now. Whatever it is, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what my kids really need to learn in school—especially during their early elementary school years—fueled in part by articles like this one, videos like this one, and posts like this one.

Math seems like a no-brainer since they’re all learning fairly foundational stuff at this point (no theoretical algebra happening here!).

Learning to read is important.

And because I personally love language arts—and I think being able to communicate well is pretty helpful in any field—we also prioritize things like grammar, spelling, vocabulary and writing during the “Essential” years (4th-6th grade).

Beyond that…well, I’m just not convinced that there is anything they really need to learn. Because here’s the thing: I loved school, yet the amount of history, geography and science I retained from my early elementary years is pretty small. The things I do remember were the things I enjoyed learning about and took ownership of. Things like Magellan’s trip around the world and the classification of animals.

At the same time, I do believe in the value of memory work—memorizing pegs like dates, names, places, and key facts while their minds are ripe for memorization. My hope—and what we’ve seen happen again and again—is that as they get excited about various topics, they naturally fit them into the framework of their memory work. Things like, “Mom! Did you know Louisa May Alcott was treated with mercury for typhoid fever? Mercury is an element on the periodic table, and it’s toxic, so the medicine made some people more sick.” {Always with lots of shouting and virtual exclamation points because they get so excited about those connections!}

But beyond that memory work, and providing lots and lots and lots of books that I hope will capture there attention, I’m less worried about unit studies on specific topics. We haven’t made models of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. We haven’t traced Lewis & Clark’s journey across the United States. We haven’t colored and assembled a human body.

In fact, we’ve dropped even more subject areas since my mid-year curriculum update. For example, I believe in the importance of Latin, and I enjoyed studying it in junior high, but my kids are not into it at this point, which means doing it is sucking their enthusiasm from all of their schoolwork. I just don’t think the benefits are enough to justify that cost. While we’ll approach Latin again later, we’ve dropped it for now.

We’ve also dropped handwriting and copywork for the older girls since I’ve seen that they’ll naturally practice those things—in letters to friends, while collecting facts on their current favorite subject, etc.—when they’re not assigned as part of their schoolwork.

On the other hand, we’ve never done a formal science curriculum—at least not for very long—but since our oldest is showing a lot of interest in chemistry and our middle girls are obsessed with animals, we’ve decided to add the Apologia chemistry and zoology books to their schoolwork. Honestly, our kids pick up enough science through their own curiosity, reading, and exploring the world that I’m not too worried about formally studying it at this point. But because they’re interested, it seems like a good time to dive deeper with the fun activities that Apologia offers on those topics.

It’s not that I’m against unit studies or opposed to formal academics. But as a classical unschooler (whatever that really means!), I’m trying to find that balance…how do I provide a solid foundation that teaches them how to learn and gives them a strong academic education so that they can pursue college or career opportunities in the future, but still leave them plenty of time to play, explore, be bored, pursue their own interests, and make their own discoveries?

I’m confident in our decisions, but I don’t have all of the answers or know exactly how this is going to play out in the future. So for now I’m just following my gut.

How do you decide what your kids really need to learn? Has your answer to that question changed over time?

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. This post is very timely, as I am discerning homeschooling for the fall. I will have to cover the subjects that the school district mandates, but my tentative plan is to do the minimum required, and then anything extra will be based on my son’s interests.

  2. I love this. I feel judged when I voice this same opinion and desire for our homeschooling. Maybe even self-judged, more than anything. Sometimes I wonder if it’s not a cop-out… for me to be lazier. Thank you for giving me permission to think “less is more”. 🙂

  3. I love this! We’re still very young over here. My oldest is the only one formally doing school (age 7) though my just turned 5 year old is obsessed with learning to read and writing letters all over the house. 😉 My 7 yr old pretty much only has math, reading, and copywork/handwriting. We read aloud a ton. We also are casually reading through Apologia Astronomy and doing experiments as we can not because he has to have it but because he loves that topic right now so…. It’s so liberating to not do too much. I’m not sure where this will lead in the future. I know we’ll add more, but for now it’s plenty.

  4. My oldest is very little so most of our learning is through play and fun activities but I wonder if you have looked into Charlotte Mason and her homeschooling ideas? She advocates memory work but mainly through reading of “living books” and narrating them back (which sounds like what your kids do anyways). There are some great free resources out there. Check it out! ☺

  5. You know, I’ve heard a lot about Charlotte Mason, but I’ve never dug into it deeply. Thanks for the recommendation!

  6. I think the more I read about how children learn and the more former teachers I see that opt out of public/formal schooling even at home the more encouraged I am that play is serious stuff for kids and filling all the hours of their days with formal education just isn’t healthy for them.

  7. I don’t have kids but I am an “educator” (I teach doctors and nurses but teaching is teaching) so I have really strong opinions when it comes to this sort of thing. The first is that everyone, no matter what your goal in life, needs critical thinking skills. You should be able to form a formal argument and back it up with evidence and logic. Being able to reason and think your way through something is much better and much more useful than rote memorization. Many of the people I work with were strictly math and science people and lack the ability to make arguments and present their case on something. A liberal arts education (which sounds like you’re covering well) teaches these skills which go well beyond writing academic papers. Critical thinkers are better leaders and tend to go very far in life.

    However, there is a lot to be said about history, science, and complex mathematics. Many careers and education paths require them and if you wait to start them, there is so much to catch up on. I think it would be difficult for an older child (perhaps late middle school/early high school age) to develop an interest in a particular topic and then try to take a class (online, homeschool group, or even a college class later) without having a background of what is typically taught at an early age. There is a lot that you can only get by doing, not out of books.

    As far as things like unit studies, doing projects, etc, I really don’t know how important those really are. There is some value in group work and being able to express yourself to people outside your family (teamwork, public speaking, good communication skills, “teach back”), but I always found that sort of stuff a waste of time. I didn’t enjoy that sort of thing and would have loved a homeschool curriculum that let me learn another way and didn’t make me make a mobile solar system out of a coat hanger and foam balls.

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