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Friday, July 12, 2013

Break Out of the Subject Box

break out-001I’ve been really, REALLY busy lately, between planning for the coming year and helping to organize our local homeschool groups club and activities…my mind is totally overrun with planning to learn.

Planning to learn?  Oh, that gives me a weird feeling.

Bear with me a minute, because I’m about to go off on one of my meandering thought trips and I have a tendency to get lost (if you get lost, you can click on a different post and find your way back).


The other day I was drawing a grid on a piece of paper and working out what the kids would be doing for each of the subjects.

And I was thinking about how knowledge, true knowledge, isn’t divided up into subjects.

Subjects are an artificial construct, something that humans put upon the world in order to make sense of it.

Kind of like the classification of animals…there’s a reason why platypuses don’t quite fit into the “mammal” category and it’s simply this:  God didn’t make platypuses mammals.   He made them platypuses.  They don’t need to fit into any particular category to be just as He wanted them to be.

But human scientists decided to divide all the animals into categories, and when they find some that don’t quite fit here or there, they stuff them into this box or that box.  Humans in general have a habit of categorizing things.  Blame it on our desire to know.

We do it to animals.  We do it to people.

We even do it to knowledge.

Think about this---centuries ago, great thinkers didn’t specialize in a particular field of science (or even science in particular---to ponder philosophy, religion, and all the natural sciences would be a perfectly natural thing).

But now you have thinkers who argue whether a scientist is qualified to argue about a philosophical concepts.  And if a theologian says anything about the theory of evolution he’s scoffed at by the scientists.  Because knowledge has been totally compartmentalized, you see.  The lines have been drawn.

It’s not just the professionals, though.  Let’s look at a typical education in this country.

A student will take many different classes, but they are always classified by subject.  So, there will be mathematics, language arts (that’s a whole kettle of worms), science, social studies (another kettle of worms), foreign languages, art, music, PE, and (in our state, anyway) health.

Go figure!  I would have put “health” under science.  Or maybe, possibly?  Social studies and science?  Here, it gets it’s own category.  Completely arbitrary. 

One of the reasons I homeschool is because I don’t happen to see the core of knowledge as a grid of subjects. 

It’s all inextricably entwined.  If I want to recall a particular fact or remember how to do something, I don’t page through the “science” or “math” stack in my brain.

And yet, here I was drawing out a grid with the subjects to make sure that I had them all covered.  Because my state requires me to teach certain subjects.  Because I need to document teaching those subjects.

Because, well, let’s be honest…it’s a lot easier for the state to see that I taught science out of this book and math out of that book and what grades level it is…vs. documenting what’s actually in my kids’ brains.  Shoot, if the government saw all the stuff coming out of my youngest son as he draws…well that’s another story. 

Bluntly:  it’s very difficult to quantify true knowledge on a massive scale.  So we play this little game and pretend we can by teaching subjects and giving standardized tests.

And I fell for it.  Well, not entirely, not philosophically, but it was having an impact on how I was educating my kids.

It’s hard to escape it when you were a part of the system yourself for so many years and you have yearly portfolio reviews and forms and stuff.  It’s easy to get caught up in the state requirements and to lose sight of the bigger picture. 

It’s easy to use the state’s requirements as your template for what to learn.

Can we even decide what to learn?  That’s a topic for another meander.

But the reality is:  learning doesn’t happen on the state’s schedule and  subjects are arbitrary.

That’s not to say that math is optional, for instance.  Only that the body of knowledge is hard to stuff into boxes.  The lines are constantly blurred and the topics of investigation are forever jumping into a different category.  Fractions---simple arithmetic, home ec, wood working, origami, sewing, rocket science (ok, that’s probably decimals), or common everyday knowledge?

So, I get why the state wants to divide learning into subjects---it’s much easier to “quantify” and manage that way.  But I’ve fallen into the same trap---trying to quantify and manage learning by subjecting it to subjects.

Why not subject the subjects to the knowledge?  The subjects are manufactured from the human imagination---they can be bent and molded to fit what we know.  And don’t know.  It makes more sense for me to think about:  what do I want to share with my kids this year? 

Something awesome and powerful and beyond what they already know.  Beyond what any standard writer could dream up for them.

I can figure out how to report it to the state later.

Something I’m going to be working on this year---is pursuing knowledge purely for its own sake and not because it fulfills this or that requirement.  Because it’s actually not that hard to fulfill the requirements---when we think in terms of requirements, we’re stuck in the box and missing all the the things that don’t really fit there.

Are you ready to break out of the subject box?

You might also like:

Why you need to develop a philosophy of education

Help!  My Kid’s Not on Grade Level!


  1. I would hope you don't install confusion in the learners by addressing this "subject" directly with them -- it's a respectable topic for teachers.

    Subjects are classifications of material and basically used to economize or make efficient the learning process. Think of them as boxes ... boxes of tools. We need to learn to use the tools so using the tools later in different circumstances will allow us to make other things possible. Great astronomers didn't just make discoveries by knowing the art of science without mathematics; the two are weaved together.

    Don't give up on subjects. Find ways to integrate the learning of the subject tools in your social/cultural setting. Higher level life experiences like determining how a vehicle accident resulted in the final location of the cars -- weaves together physics, mathematics, problem solving (yes, that's a subject), art, language, and probably others.

    Discovering those higher level experiences may be more what you're after in your "true knowledge" pursuit. What do you want your child to be able "to do" when they are finished homeschooling? Are we only preparing them with tools? Or are we preparing the tools AND a solid set of experiences?

    Just a thought (or two) for your consumption.

  2. Thank you for sharing your well spoken thoughts!

    I don't think I disagree with you on any point. Well, ok, I call "problem-solving" "reasoning" so that I can group it as one of the "4 Rs". ;)

    I'm not saying throw out subjects---my point is that in my experience many homeschoolers see subjects as the boxes that need to be filled and they don't see beyond the boxes. As you say---the subjects should be tools for reaching our destination, not the beginning and end of our journey.

    This actually fits in with a post I wrote a while back on developing a philosophy of education. I often see homeschoolers stuck in the "curriculum box" without having a clear picture of what it is they are trying to accomplish.

  3. I agree!! My problem is trying to figure out what qualifies for which subject. Rather than having Luke do "papers" I have him working on a blog series. But if he writes about the Indian headdresses we made, does it count "just" as writing? It's history. And culture. And art. So where do I put the "grade" for what he did? Is it fair to only count it in one category? Is it doing him justice by counting it in three?

  4. Yes, Meg, that is a problem. I think it makes more sense to show what he did---but it's hard to quantify that, isn't it?

    Obviously we can't "double count" things, but it also seems a shame to have to push things into this or that box.


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