What Does Your Child Really Need to Learn?

 Hint: Ignore Aspects of Traditional Schooling

Michael Strong, Founder and Chief Visionary, Expanse
Nina Berler, Chief Communications Officer and College Counselor, Expanse

Confusion. Guilt. Uncertainty. What are you feeling as a parent who’s become increasingly involved in managing your child’s transition to virtual learning?

Whether you’re at home overseeing your child’s learning—or if you’ve joined the thousands attempting podding—you’re likely to be overwhelmed by curricular choices. Certainly, we acknowledge that any academic subject or supplemental activity could have enormous benefits. But do they all need to be part of every student’s “academic” day? 

Your child really can be successful in life even if you ignore certain aspects of traditional schooling. It’s part of a hypothesis we’ve successfully tested while designing several alternative schools. In fact, we’ve found that students are the most successful when they focus on core skills, supplementing their experience by exploring what they love. Notably, this is the same pattern that characterizes applicants who are admitted to elite colleges in the era of holistic admissions. In this writeup, we’ll examine the hypothesis at each developmental level.

Primary and Early Adolescence: Concentrate on the Core 

Any educational program should focus on the development of core academic skills that a child needs to succeed at the highest levels of academia:

Focus Area: Reading (for Fun)

Hopefully, a love for reading develops early as a bonding opportunity with your child, filled with wonder and conversation. We would argue that “covering” a required curriculum interferes with attaining the highest levels of reading—and no skill is more important than reading. As the skill develops, reading books and articles about science or history infuses more subject-specific knowledge than studying those subjects individually in a classroom setting, especially when you can converse with a child about that reading, allowing for reflection. Through their reading, students eventually come to focus on their world outside school and not the test administered in the classroom. 

Focus Area: Writing (for Fun)

Writing well comes naturally to students who are immersed in their reading and subsequent intellectual dialogue. It starts with talking about writing, then writing together and talking about what has actually been written. Just as reading skills develop over many hours of that activity, writing comes more easily by spending many at that core skill. How many high school students dread writing essays and research papers? What about college applicants who freeze when facing deadlines for personal statements and supplements? They missed the early opportunities to read and write for fun.

Focus Area: Math

As if the fear of writing isn’t enough, what about the anxiety associated with math? Though it begins with arithmetic, learning math is a matter of solving puzzles, receiving individualized math coaching and persisting using highly disciplined math practice. It should be no surprise that we recommend rich reading and conversation about mathematics along with science-filled examples and complex word problems. Any student with mathematical ability should be learning more math more quickly than what is prescribed in the U.S. curricula.

Focus Area: Intellectual Dialogue

What fosters critical thinking and mutual respect? For students in the primary or middle school levels, it is intellectual dialogue. That’s why we’ve embedded a Socratic experience in the latest launch, Expanse. A Socratic Guide opens with a community activity, providing encouragement and insight while fostering discussion. Students are able to speak at length about what they see in an assigned text. Over time, historical texts, literature, and current events-focused reading materials foster student dialogue.

Secondary Years: Don’t Cover Subjects. Instead, Engage in Purposeful Exploration

There’s no reason to think that young teens having the background in rich reading, writing and math can’t handle college-level courses years before they’ve reached “college age.” In fact, secondary students having decent work habits to complement their high-level core skills shouldn’t have to waste their teen years “covering” material in meaningless, disconnected courses. Especially when teachers get sidetracked with the dreaded task of classroom management, students risk becoming bored and withdrawn. 

Our belief is that a student with strong core skills who has developed interests will be ready to tackle a project in depth by adolescence. Note: This process is only successful when the choice of what to pursue comes from the student and their passion, not from a parent’s notion of what their child ought to do. That’s why high schoolers having packed resumes and endorsements by parental connections may not get the elite admission parents longed for. (See below.)

As a parent, you may have to help obtain a mentor or set benchmarks as your teen carries out a job, volunteers, or pursues their choice of sport, art or entrepreneurial opportunity. After all, students ready to take on passion-based projects need to understand that they will receive feedback on their progress. They’re living their life and will be judged like an adult. In turn, they’ll come to understand how the world works and what it takes to be successful. 

Down the Road: The College Process or Alternative Path

There was a time when college applicants loaded up on activities they (or their parents) thought “looked good for college.” At the same time, elite colleges became overrun with applicants having killer transcripts and top test scores. So they moved increasingly to holistic admissions, looking to enroll a mix of students who not only satisfy their institutional priorities but also showcase an array of talents. The differentiator for students: taking on a substantial project that has been recognized by the adult world, which could include volunteering, running a business, conducting scholarly research, publishing (Internet or otherwise) or pursuing extraordinary artistic or athletic passions. (For those parents who can’t get enough of testing, teens whose core skills developed early can easily learn to master the SAT or ACT. We’ve seen it happen!)

And what about getting a microdegree, apprenticeship or other alternative to a four-year college experience? That’s not only fine, but it may be preferable in this era of grey-collar jobs. Increasingly, teens are opting out of a traditional college to pursue what they love, fueling the belief in world-class skill development. If your child could flourish in this manner, why put him in a traditional educational setting or a college with which he can’t connect? (See Success Stories below.)

Success Story: Cliff Spradlin. Cliff left high school as an autodidact. He became a software engineer at Tesla, SpaceX and Waymo.
Success Story: Laura Deming. Laura Deming matriculated MIT at 14 and left MIT to pursue a Thiel Fellowship at 16. She is the founder of The Longevity Fund, a venture capital company focused on antiaging.

Special Needs, Socialization and Other Considerations

The current era of podding leaves parents wondering how it’s possible to assume a role previously left to classroom teachers: experts in controlling groups as they administer approved curricula. We acknowledge that experts may be needed to support students with learning disabilities such as dysgraphia, dyslexia and hearing impairment. But what about the bulk of students who spend their day going from one subject another? What will they remember once the exam is over? That leads back to our earlier argument: students raised to show respect, be responsible, take initiative and maintain optimism have already been set up for success, especially if they developed a love for reading, writing, math and discussion. (We’ll argue that such students are less likely to develop addictions to technology and media.)

We often hear concerns about inadequate socialization in the absence of the traditional K12 experience. Ask students today what they miss about school during the pandemic, and many will tell you it’s the camaraderie, not the schoolwork. Moreover, many have come to dread school and are glad they’re learning remotely; immature students in traditional settings may become cruel over time, resulting in the unfortunate investment in therapeutic solutions. In contrast, homeschooled children often spend hours pursuing activities such as dance or art, leading to positive peer relationships. 

No matter the goal for your child’s life after secondary school, simplifying the K12 experience is a net win. With a focus on reading, writing, math and intellectual debate, other things can be less structured or, even better, ignored. What matters isn’t that a student goes through the motions in what’s officially a school, even expensive private schools. (During the pandemic, many independent schools have struggled to consistently deliver hybrid and virtual models packed with curricular requirements.) Load your child’s day with just the core subjects and, when those skills are solid, add a caring person who knows and loves what they teach as a  mentor. That’s something few traditional schools can guarantee.

An Ideal School Day

(Some Aspects of Traditional Schooling Ignored!)

Personal Project

Michael Strong is the founder of several alternative schools and author of numerous publications including The Habit of Thought: From Socratic Seminars to Socratic Practice. His most recent venture, Expanse, embeds the lessons described in this article to give students an affordable and purposeful education. 

Nina Berler is Chief Communications Officer and Head of College Counseling at Expanse. As founder of unCommon Apps, she works closely with high school students and their families to help them with all aspects of the college process. She is the author of two ebook primers: Supplementing the College Supplement and Mastering the College Interview

Get in touch: hello@expanseonline.co.

Leave a Reply