Open Letter/Rant to Anyone Developing Online Curriculum for Kids

by dave

I have one child who homeschools, and 2 children who would like to. I also work indirectly with educators who are trying to improve the curriculum through the US educational systems. So I have a decent exposure to the details of the curriculum being offered to our children via online tools.

And I’m not impressed. I don’t want to be dismissive of the hard work people have put forth… on the contrary, I really do appreciate it, and have great hopes for the future. People are trying to identify betters ways to teach, and acting on it, which is wonderful. Nevertheless, this is a very typical conversation at my home:

Daughter: “Dad, I don’t understand this lesson.”

Me: “Let me see…”

*I watch, see what is being taught…*

Me: “OK, let me explain it differently…”

Daughter: “Oh! I get it! Why didn’t they just say that?”


Exactly. Why don’t the authors just explain it in the way children can understand? What I tend to see is an abundance of detail being thrown at my kids before the high-level questions are answered of “What are we teaching in this lesson? What goal are we trying to achieve?”

I’ve seen this trend described as “elementitis”, a term apparently coind by David Perkins in his book, <a href=””>”Making Learning Whole”</a>, which apparently I need to read, as doing so might be more productive than ranting online…

But to continue… Most of my daughter’s questions are not about the details of the lesson. They are about a lack of context. She can follow lessons just fine if she knows what she is trying to do. But sit her down and start delving into the details of a process for solving math equations, without telling her first what the equation is and what the final result looks like, and she cannot focus on the details because she is still trying to understand the overall goal.

The other common flaw I see is not speaking at the level that children speak. I see two extremes — talking like adults do, with complex grammar and vocabulary, and long explanation of details…. or dumbing it down to a kindergarten level, with cute pictures and stories. There is a middle ground that needs to be hit for kids at elementary school ages. They can handle some complexity… but for example,  (Sorry, Khan Academy folks…) don’t go down tangents about what each syllable in the word “concrete” means when trying to explain the difference between concrete and abstract nouns. Again, kids need context first, details later. FIRST tell kids that concrete nouns refer to real objects, abstract nouns refer to concepts. 5 seconds, and boom, they have heard the point of the entire lesson. THEN feel free to go into more detail about the meaning of those words. But don’t spend 90 seconds on a vocabulary lesson, unless you are actually trying to teach vocabulary. You’ve lost their attention, and they are not listening when you tell them the actual main point of your lesson.

Kids are smart. They soak up knowledge like sponges. But that doesn’t mean they have huge attention spans or complex thought quite yet. Tell them what they are going to learn, give them the simplest, quickest lesson you can, give them examples, let them practice it.  And be done. This isn’t even specific to kids – Adults learn well from general –> detailed, too.

It is OK to start simple! They have years to learn the details!