What Is Education? If not the conventional curriculum, what do kids really need to know?

A: “Our school has no teachers, no classes, and no homework.”

B: “So, the kids don’t learn anything?”

A: “No, they do learn. They get a good education.”

B: “How is that possible?”

I’m so glad you asked, B! It’s a good question and one that deserves a good answer. It’s not complicated but requires you to shift your perspective on what education means.

The conventional concept of education, which makes so much sense to people, is that children are to memorize huge amounts of information, and when they’re done, the amount of information they’ve memorized determines how educated they are. They are to memorize, for example:

  • math formulas
  • vocabulary words
  • grammar rules
  • historical events
  • classic works of literature
  • scientific theories
  • and so on…

Conventional education also includes skill mastery, such as critical thinking, using the scientific method, etc. But these skills, if they are even learned at all, are incidental. Teachers hope that children will pick up these skills through the process of memorizing information, but they do not test for these skills nor do they know how to test for them.

An 18-year-old who has amassed all this information is considered to be educated. We are very proud of them! We feel good about our education system. The feeling of pride and assurance about the future that we feel when a child learns all the things is interesting, considering that (1) almost none of those “things” will be relevant to the actual careers they end up in, and (2) almost all of the “things” will be forgotten within a few years after they are memorized.

Let’s take a moment to dwell on that feeling of pride and assurance. It’s a feeling that comes from inside us, not outside us. We have been conditioned to feel it. It’s not based on facts, evidence, or data. I don’t expect you to accept this right now. I just wanted to sow a few seeds of doubt before we move on.

face painting

So what is education? If it’s not memorizing a lot of information, what is it? My concept of education is divided into six categories. They are:

  1. Basic skills. These are skills that everyone needs to know to get through life. They are used everywhere, all the time. This includes fluency in your local language, as well as the ability to read and write, do arithmetic, tell time, make measurements, tie shoelaces, and look up information on the internet.
  2. People skills. These are also used everywhere, all the time. Unlike basic skills, people skills are practically an art form and mastering them is a lifelong process. They are arguably even more important than basic skills—you never need to know how to tie your shoes if you can persuade the person next to you to do it for you! Jokes aside, people skills include the ability to communicate effectively, collaborate on teams, make and keep friends, advocate for yourself, negotiate for a good deal, and persuade others to follow you.
  3. Character skills. These are even more of an art form than people skills and are even more nebulous and abstract. Character skills include resilience, confidence, optimism, curiosity, creativity, passion, self-kowledge, independence, responsibility, problem-solving, and setting and achieving goals. Humans have no idea how to teach these skills to children but think they are very good at it. Every child’s journey is different, but it helps to have a supportive environment with good role models.
  4. Cultural knowledge. People don’t NEED to know these things to get through life, but it sure doesn’t hurt. Cultural knowledge is what makes a person “cultured” and can help with #2. This includes an understanding of music and art, mastery of foreign languages, knowledge of the history of your family, country, and world, and appreciation of your culture’s traditions (including religious traditions). Please note that all these things are relative—knowing Spanish makes you cultured in Southern California, but in Romania you’d have to learn Hungarian.
  5. Political and ideological knowledge. Similar to cultural knowledge, this can help a person navigate the social world they inhabit. This includes understanding how your government works, knowing what is going on right now in your nation and the world, and literacy regarding hot button issues like climate change, gender roles, and social justice. Also like cultural knowledge, it is better for political and ideological knowledge not to come from the top down like in a classroom. Instead, a child should be exposed to a wide variety of sources from across their culture and be free to choose their own beliefs.
  6. Specialized skills. These are skills that are used in specific careers. They include things like calculus, biology, and linguistics, as well as farming principles, hair styling techniques, and legal knowledge. As these span the entirety of human knowledge, there is essentially an infinite amount that can be learned, and so it would be silly for a child to try to learn specialized knowledge unless they actually plan to use it for something.

Now that we have a definition of education, how do we make children educated? This brings us back to “no teachers, no classes, no homework.” Do you think we can teach children what they need to know via textbooks and lectures, reinforce it with assignments, and assess it with tests? Those methods work well for memorization of facts, but not for real education. We just like those methods so much because they are simple, they make sense, they are scientific, mechanical, scalable. We like them even though they don’t work, because we don’t know what works and we’d rather do something and pretend it works rather than do nothing.

So what is the answer? How do we make children educated? Don’t worry, the answer is not “do nothing.” In the next article we’ll explore the principles of Self-Directed Education that can serve as our guide on this journey.

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