Why kids should specialize

Kids suffer long-term from schoolwork that doesn’t interest them argues career advice blogger Penelope Trunk, who’s started homeschooling her children.

When people ask me why my kids aren’t learning math, I ask them why their kids aren’t learning an instrument. Or why they aren’t learning a language. Because math, music, and language all develop the brain in similar ways. They are all good for a similar type of learning. But the question that assumes that math is the one right way to develop that part of the brain betrays the assumption that traditional school knows best.

Traditional schools want students to learn a little bit of everything, Trunk writes. But the world rewards specialists.

For ten years I have been writing about how important specializing is for your career. Specialization is essential, really, to to staying employable throughout your adult life. But I have recently been blown away by how clear the research is that kids should specialize as well.

Which means that you either need to make your kid great at the test-taking game, or you need to find something else for the kid to be great at.

What if your children are good at various things but not really great at anything? What if your five-year-old wants to specialize in TV watching or dolls or dinosaurs and no interest in math or music or language?

Forget better teachers…

Get better teaching jobs instead.

So says the combined authority of Hess, Gunn, and Meeks in an interesting commentary at Education Week.  Here’s the short version: We’re never going to get all the omnicompetent super-teachers we think we need.  So instead, let’s take the work force we have and change the job of teaching — change the structure of institutional education, change what we’re doing with schools, really — in order to maximize that force’s effectiveness.

Of the various proposals in the essay, I think the promotion of specialization is probably the best.  Every teacher — even the ones that I considered awful when I was in school — has some talent.  No human is completely bereft of talent, save perhaps those suffering from certain really extreme birth defects.  Learning how to use the talents of your employees is one of the hallmarks of a good manager and a good leader.

Even if turning the school into the equivalent of a hospital, complete with a para-educational staff and a small army of administrative workers, turns out not to be feasible, it’s a novel idea, and the authors are probably right that it’s easier than attempting to hire not hire all those super-teachers.

Majoring in elementary school

Starting in second grade, children will be placed in an “interest stream” — the arts, scientific inquiry, sports, humanitarian/environment — at an Alberta elementary school, reports The National Post.  Surveys in kindergarten and first grade and input from parents and teachers will determine the grouping. Students will be taught the provincial curriculum through the “lens” of their “stream.”

For the humanitarian/environment stream, for example, Grade 3 teacher Carla Pierce, plans to teach graphing from a humanitarian perspective by having students chart various countries’ wealth. A math class might involve an assignment in which kids calculate waste accumulation, while a big-picture view will be provided by such guest speakers as the social-change organization Me to We.

Hawkey Elementary School Principal Dan Hoch hopes to engage students by capitalizing on their interests. “Wayne Gretzky was skating when he was three years old.”

The concept is loosely guided by Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of providing early opportunities to develop an area of expertise. In 2008’s Outliers: The Story of Success, the bestselling author concluded that in order to be a high achiever in any field, some 10,000 hours of related practice are required. It’s also informed by educational reform ideas from scholar Ken Robinson.

“It sounds faddish if it’s being inspired by Malcolm Gladwell,” said Dr. Paul Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Consulting. “Experiments like this are valuable if the initiators have their goal of raising standards, but if it’s just more of the same, watering-down the curriculum and making it more palatable to students, it’s probably not going to produce much of a change.”

University of Calgary researchers, who will evaluate the program, hope to see improved achievement and and drops in absenteeism and discipline problems.

Parents and teachers are skeptical about the idea, the Post reports.

“Between the age of six and 10 I don’t think I even knew how to tie my shoes or make a sandwich, let alone figure out my future humanitarian endeavours or how to apply for a patent after my grandiose scientific invention,” wrote Scott Mitchell, the Airdrie Echo newspaper editor, in an editorial.

I can’t say I was much of a humanitarian when I was seven. I had no particular interest in the arts, science or sports either. I liked to read fantasy, adventure and history, averaging a book a day for many years.  My friend Janice and I wrote a newspaper, The Wednesday Report, from second through fifth grade. Was I an outlier? I guess so. Schools can’t cater to true outliers, except by leaving them alone. My teachers let me read in class, discreetly.