Which subjects should a student study?

Which subjects should be studied is a contentious issue.  Exactly who should decide which subjects are to be studied by a student?  For some bizarre reason, we have acceded power for this decision to the government and to educators who supposedly “know better” than we do what our children are interested in, or should be interested in.

I’m personally a fan of the idea found in classical “liberal” education, in which the student is exposed to many subjects.   Please note that I said “exposed to”, not “forced to study”.

I believe strongly that we should allow students to experience the world and all of its many offerings – and then let the student tell us what they find of interest.  I think that it’s great when a student experiences everything from fishing to oboe, physics to cooking, map-making to star-charting – and then decides for him or herself what sparks his or her interest.

The moment that Little Johnny says “THAT interests me” is the moment that his parents and teachers should step in. They should create as much of an opportunity as possible for Johnny to truly experience in depth the subject that has caught his attention.

I also do somewhat agree with those who strongly feel that a student should acquire a level of understanding in certain “key subjects” commensurate to the needs of our civilization.  I personally think that a person who, for instance, has no knowledge of basic math, of government, or who is illiterate, who knows little or nothing about computers, science or art is to the extent of their lack of experience and knowledge handicapped.

But in the final analysis, and this may shock some of you – so what? No one does everything well.

Civilizations exist on the basis of specialization.  I know many fine and successful artists who can’t balance their checkbook.  They hire specialists, business managers, to do so – and hope that the people handling their money are honest and capable.  But these artists do some things that few others can do.  They are every bit as specialized as their business managers.  The artist’s specialty is the communication of ideas and emotions at a level demanding appreciation and response.  Now there’s a great specialization!   So if an artist does not know a pulsar from a carburetor, who cares?  There are astronomers and car mechanics that are equally specialized in their fields and who will pick up the pieces.

If a scientist knows nothing about football or home economics, who cares?  So long as he find that cure for cancer, an accomplishment that can only be reached by a person blessed with focus and a kind of tunnel-vision – and one which will change life on our planet.

If a lawyer is unaware of science, of math, of art – but he can protect the innocent from prosecution, then personally I do not care what else he knows.

If I personally were to set the standards for what should be studied, your students would be doing a lot of creative writing, history, science, speech and acting, etc.  And, well, um – no math.  And no dissections in Biology.  Baseball and Basketball – yes.  Football, no.  Soccer, maybe.  Dance, assuredly, and voice.  Fishing, heavens no!  Learning to handle a gun – never.

I should not set the standards for your student, certainly not regarding the subjects to be studied.  No one should decide what your student will study except the student him or herself, working closely with a teacher and family when necessary.

The correct standards for the subjects selected for study:

To be determined by the student as a natural part of a process of exposure to many, many subjects.  Once determined, to be encouraged and fueled by parents and teachers until, when and if the student either cries out “enough”, or better, takes on the entirety of the task of mastering that subject out of devotion, love and ambition.

As you probably know, I am an advocate for homeschooling. It’s my belief that homeschooling potentially provides a student with a vastly superior education than schooling in any form. This is backed up by a lot of numbers and research. I’ve taught for public and private schools, at the University level, as a private instructor in thousands of workshops, and as a homeschool dad running a homeschool group. Homeschooling by far works best for most students- and most families.

But I understand that many parents do not believe they can effectively homeschool. They’ve been told that they “don’t have degrees,” and that they “aren’t qualified.” This is all nonsense, of course. You’re legally not required to have any kind of a degree to homeschool your kids anywhere in the U.S. A lot of people who have degrees and who call themselves “professional teachers” are simply awful, and even destructive at what they do. A lot of parents…hundreds that I know of…have homeschooled their kids right into universities and careers.

In a serious effort to make homeschooling easier to do, and more commonly successful in terms of education received, I’ve authored my own curriculum. It took some 15,000 hours to write, over more than a decade of work, and is intended to replace the need for schooling a student from age 5-Adult Continuing Education. The curriculum is called Steps (or “CTT”). It has been used by over 20,000 students worldwide over the past 10 years. Hundreds of “success stories” attest to how well CTT works.

CTT courses are written in a way that gradually allows the student to take over his own education. Each course itself largely does the teaching, relieving mom and dad of that duty unless they wish to use our daily lesson plans in various subjects as springboards for family discussion and discovery – as many families do, every day. The parent has the job of making certain the student is working and has what they need to study. (And you’ll need to find a good math program for homeschooling as we don’t provide one. There are many.)

Below are links to our site discussing each level of curriculum, and every subject at that level that we offer. (You can start any level at any time. We don’t have “semesters” that start at a certain time, and each course stands alone well.) You’ll find free videos describing how every subject and each level works. You’ll discover free samples of every course we offer. Our site offers many other services and surprises, including numerous free courses you can download and try out.

Starter is for ages 5-6, and for preliterate students of any age. It focuses on starting to develop literacy skills, while teaching about various subjects. Starter includes full two-year programs in Reading, History, Science, Creative Writing, and Living Your Life, courses that develop life and study skills for the youngest students. Every lesson plan at the Starter level works to develop literacy.

Elementary is for ages 7-8, and for students who are developing literacy. It includes two-year programs in Reading and Spelling, History, Science, Creative Writing (which also teaches the parts of language at this level), and Living Your Life courses which develop life and study skills in preparation for more advanced studies to come.

Lower School (ages 9-10) offers two-year programs in Study Essentials, Reading and Spelling, History, Science, Creative Writing, P.E. Electives, and in various arts such as Animation, Music Theory, and Acting. At this level, students must read fairly well, and studies are progressively turned over to the student.

Upper School (ages 11-High School, and Adult Continuing Education) provides programs in Study Essentials, Reading and Spelling, History, Science, Creative Writing, Current Events, Literature Guides, P.E. Electives, and in arts such as Animation, Acting, Music Theory, and Music History.

For parents who wish to teach at home, but are intimidated at the thought, and for parents who just wish to improve the homeschool experience, we offer a ten course homeschool program for homeschool teachers, as well as several books about education and homeschooling today.

We want you and your children to win with homeschooling!

20 comments for “Which subjects should a student study?

  1. November 18, 2010 at 2:35 am

    Great blog! It is about time someone pointed out that the education establishment “emperor has no clothes”! We all know intuitively that an artificial list as well as an artificial timetable does nothing but frustrate future learners who BEGIN with a desire for learning. The only point on which I may diverge is that very young ones have not developed a true maturity for subject matter and may need much more PARENTAL influence. Anyway, thank you for WISDOM!!!

  2. August 27, 2011 at 12:57 am

    Amen and Hallelujah! I am so thankful for the awakening that is happening that the government has no business dictating to parents how they should raise their children. Thank you for being so outspoken on this very important issue.

    My daughter is such a talented artist but she has no interest whatsoever in science and I have a feeling that she will never need any of the science we do when she grows up, but I must admit that I do still present it because you never know, right?

    I’ve read so many of your posts via Twitter (and saw fit to post on my wall on Facebook), that it’s time to formally follow 🙂

    Recent Post: Favorite Math Resource – EVER!

  3. August 27, 2011 at 3:21 am

    Hi Gidget,

    Thanks for the kind words! I’m not sure that an awakening IS happening, I’m afraid. For that to occur, millions more families would need to pull their children from failed and destructive schools and start the job of homeschooling. We would need millions of activists insisting that government get its nose out of the family and out private business, including what our children will learn and how. Increasingly removing government’s “authority” over our children and their education, one which we the people foolishly granted the government in the 1860s, should be a national priority.

    You should protect your daughter’s right to study those subjects and to develop those skills which she maintains an interest in, because those are her future. If science isn’t for her, then so be it. We are none of us good at all subjects, a truth that a government cannot conceive of. (That said, I suspect that some science would be of use to her as she grows up, as it is to anyone, but that is merely an opinion and my opinions should not guide anyone’s choice of subjects to be studied.)

    Thanks for reading my articles! Share them with friends, if you are so disposed, I would appreciate it.

  4. October 7, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    What you just described is what some homeschooling moms call “unschooling”. Letting the child take control of their education. The majority of CRAP I was forced to learn I NEVER used in life. I think reading, writing, and math are important. Well basic math anyway. I never used anything beyond that. Some kids know exactly what they want to be when they grow up. If that’s the case, I think they should focus on what’s needed to pursue that career.

  5. October 7, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Agreed. What’s more, I think the student should be allowed to determine his or her own interests, and should be allowed the bulk of their time to follow up. That’s how we’ll help build a generation of brilliant people devoted to their life’s work. Thanks for writing.

  6. Greg Gamble
    November 16, 2011 at 11:01 pm

    We have taught our 4 kids at home since 1991, taking them all the way to University or College, if they want to go.
    I quit school in grade 8 and wife is a refugee with two years of school in foreign language. She learned English, arithmetic and writing with our oldest. The metric is;less pedagogy equals more self directed, curiosity and experienced learning.
    And if it isn’t relational, and shared with loved ones, its just knowledge.
    The objective is for them to ‘own’ their learning journey, being able to say “I accomplished that”. Therein lies the antidote to public schools malady of low self esteem. Kids are honest, and know they haven’t accomplished anything worth bragging about.
    And worse, they know they wont be competing against their own last best accomplishment or anyone else’s, either. No wonder they bring guns and drugs to school. Those are the currency of their future.
    We have increasingly unlearned our cultural and pedagogical school indoctrination and become resource providers, guides and mentors for them. From the beginning, we decided that since we don’t live life in subjects (who does only geography for an hour) we wouldn’t teach subjects where we could reconstitute bodies of experience and knowledge. So, we teach only reading, cursive writing and arithmetic till they are into puberty. No hurry, no tests, no class, just learning how to learn. We consider these to be tools with which we learn everything else. Lots of play, experimenting, reading, sleep, food, fun, quiet time, family, work and volunteering to others. If they want to do science or snowboarding ,we bring it in to their lives. They have taken us on some wild rides and we have taken them on some of ours. We share a journey. 2 to 3 hrs of book/desk learning per day, 4 or maybe 5 days a week, starting at age 4 or 5 and all four were able to read the newspaper at 5 or 6 and Defoe by 8, repeat 12 times tables and calculate mentally by 9ish. Both boys lagged both girls in academics by a year or so. All other ‘subjects’ are optional, as we rely on curiosity and lots of free time, with strategically coordinated events and opportunities to draw out their innate interests.

    Never had TV or radio but do have the CD’s, DVD’s, Internet and 2000 books.
    Lots of human interaction, apprenticeships,working in family biz or customers offices (law, grocery, drugs), tons of sports, nature, camping, acting, skits, music (all play piano, one boy may go pro)
    Oldest is 24, with a Masters, and manages communications for Toronto’s largest business improvement area (BIA)Starting her own consulting biz this week. Younger siblings show equally interesting leanings in engineering, industrial arts, languages, trades, sports and sustainable living. 20 yr old girl has her own painting biz, 17 yr old boy has own commercial cleaning contract for 3 yrs, owns a classic car and just got motorcycle license. 12 yr old boy will prob end up as stand up comic car salesman life coach playing pro tennis.
    All this to agree with you Steve.
    Greg near Toronto/Canada

  7. November 17, 2011 at 6:02 am

    Hi Greg,

    Well done on your approach to your children’s education! They will be a blessing for all those around them for the rest of their lives! That’s a real accomplishment.

  8. November 19, 2011 at 8:45 pm

    Interesting post. My husband and I were talking about this yesterday. We are realizing how little of what we were forced to study in school we really use in daily life. We homeschool our three kids – ages 15, 13 and 5. We do about and hour and half of “schoolwork” four days a week. In this time I make sure they are exposed to a variety of subjects. Most of these are through videos or books I read aloud to them.Very few worksheets (unless they enjoy them as my 5 year old does) and no tests. They spend several hours a day working with us in our home based business, which allows them to earn money. The rest of the time they are allowed to pursue their own interests. My 15 year old is very interested in antiques as well as involved in church activities, my 13 year old loves animals of all kinds and spends most of her time taking care of and enjoying our two cats, two dogs, guinea pig, and three turtles or learning more about animals. My five year old is very mechanically gifted and spends so much time taking apart and putting back together a variety of things. This system works well for all of us and we are thoroughly enjoying it.

  9. November 20, 2011 at 3:08 am

    Every child learns best in their own way. And they learn the subjects that interest them and that seem to have a desired application in their life best. I believe that you’re doing exactly the right thing! I agree with your approach (obviously). And well done!

  10. Boo Soon Yew
    June 15, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Personally.. my view is that we MUST have
    1) Science
    2) Maths
    3) History
    4) Geography
    .. in that order of importance..

    After that, the “electives” come in..
    Yet on the other hand, how can a student choose his or her electives without first being exposed to them ??

    Thus when can one know about Arts.. Language.. Social Studies.. etc.. without first being EXPOSED to these subjects especially from youth.. to avoid any bias.

    In Malaysia, we follow a very RIGID public school system. A fixed set of subjects to choose from in Elementary School.. and by Middle School, it’s like a regimented approach with little room for flexibility pr creativity.

    WORSE in High School !! Science Practicals are “conducted” using prepared programme and the teacher just needs to press enter 🙁

  11. June 16, 2012 at 7:47 am

    Hi, Mr. Yew,

    Well, I can’t say I like Malaysia’s system, as I’m sure you imagined I’d respond. Who would? It must make someone’s life (like teachers) very simple, but sounds devastating for the children. As to which subjects should be studied, I do believe young students should get a grounding in the subjects you mentioned. They are a part of life and a functioning person must be sufficiently conversant with them. That said, I really believe by the time a student has reached their teen years (at the latest), much of their educative time and energy should be committed to those subjects (basics such as you list, or electives) that attract their interest and which develop their skills. These are most likely to be the areas that young student will grow up to work in. If we want happy and genuinely productive adults, we must allow them to discover and develop their strengths and their enthusiasms as children. If we want a productive and reasonably sane civilization, this needs urgently to be done. And yes, the exposure to all sorts of subjects must start pretty young – and be repeated later as the student forms their views. In the end, I think that we must allow each student to show and tell us what interests them, and then support those interests and carefully watch how they develop. Thanks for writing.

  12. August 25, 2012 at 11:50 am

    As we enter the “high school years” with my fraternal twin boys, I have come to the realization (as a homeschooler) that I should allow them to focus on their areas of most interest and only require reading, writing, and math as their core. (One boy is still working on basic math due to learning difficulties when he was younger.) So this year, their course list consists of writing instruction, reading good literature, continuing with math instruction (upper elementary to middle school level), and, because they are more interested in science, a very hands-on physical science program. Then I added, per their interests, a Video Game Design online course and we are trying to get them into a Graphics Design class at the local high school. (We’ll know more next week when the public school classes start back up.) So they have their 3 R’s core, and then focus on physical science, graphics design, and game design.

    They have disliked history all of the years we have homeschooled, no matter how I approached it, so I have decided we will only cover it very lightly through the high school years (but not this year) and I will require at least a semester of study in US Government to make them more informed citizens in our society. That’s my game-plan and I don’t really care what others say that they *should* be studying in high school!

  13. Amanda
    March 3, 2013 at 7:26 am

    English, Math, Science, History, Bible, PE, and Supplementary Arts. Supplementary Arts involves introduces new topics that the student can choose to study for short sets with the option to take additiinal classes on the subject if they are interested. Could include topics such as guitar or piano, drawing or painting, promoting or shop… This frees students to focus in on topic that interest them, while engraining the fundamentals of academics in their studies. Just my two cents.

  14. April 10, 2013 at 11:33 am

    Love this article! Before deciding to unschool I tried to shove subjects down my kids throats they had no interest in. Why not let the child dictate their learning? Teach them how to research and teach themselves, all education has gaps somewhere and then when the are older and if they need to learn something they will and probably at a faster rate now that they know they will actually use it and it won’t be a waste of their time! I do occasionally require they go to a museum or something with me just to see if it sparks an interest they never knew the had.

  15. August 1, 2013 at 3:31 pm

    An interesting read with many good points (added to by the above comments too to help fuel the debate). We have homeschooled briefly in the past as parents (through necessity) and participated as teachers. There is much sense in your thoughts but I do have concerns with your curriculum proposals insofar as that there appears to be no Modern Languages, Design, Art or manufacturing as I understand it. You mention the Arts in a way that I find rather unusual – animation, music history….? But the real study of Design, Art (related History), painting, sculpture, textiles, print and 3D need careful consideration.

    Design as an academic and creative discipline spread across all areas of manufacture (not simply ‘shop’ for less able kids as it is currently taught in the states) has to be there if you are to nurture and develop youngsters who can deal with a world that is changing quicker than anyone can really understand. Design education is about problem solving, prototyping, sketching, innovating, manufacture in smart materials, composites, textiles, metals, woods, composites using current technologies (3D printing, cnc machining and so on) as well as basic hands-on manufacture. These skills are a pre-requisite in my mind and must be looked at if you are to maintain a curriculum that can support wealth creation and provide genuine divergent, innovative and problem solving skills that will serve your future bankers, doctors, lawyers, politicians. Nurturing creativity is a basic subtext of education. Any proposed curriculum must not stifle it.

    Mastering at least one modern (and maybe other?) languages are not mentioned I don’t think. Both my daughters (aged 9 and 17) are tri-lingual (English, French, Spanish) and the eldest is studying Mandarin. I am English, my wife is French. I am still amazed that kids are still only taught to ‘Google’ in English – throwing in a French or Spanish word/phrase will open up another third of the Internet for you allowing greater breadth and depth to your study across cultures and academic approach. If you can really show off and chuck in Mandarin the world is your Oyster! Modern Languages are crucial to a youngsters development in this world which is becoming quite a small place to live in.

    We are naive if we think that our kids are not going to grow up into professions that will at least require them talk on the phone/skype to folk in another country with their professional work, let alone travel to another country with work at some point (and quite possibly work abroad at some point in their careers). In 27 years I have either taught or worked as a consultant in England, France, Hong Kong, Australia and Portugal. There will be more places to go as my work, or that of my wife’s, takes me there – of that I am sure.

    Good blog entry, good comments above – let the debate continue :). Dave.

  16. August 1, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    Dave, we don’t have a debate. The subjects mentioned here are just suggestions. My curriculum offers creative writing, acting, animation, music theory and music history because I know those areas well enough to teach them. And by the way, you seem to disapprove of studies in music history and animation, based on your response. Animation requires a ton of skills, many of them design oriented. Music history is essential to any musician or composer. These are not “lesser arts”, Dave, whatever your reaction to them. Anyway, homeschoolers are free to study any subject they see fit, and that the student is interested in. That was the point of the article. I’ve been a teacher for over 40 years, I’m just interested in kids doing well, discovering their interests and being encouraged in every way to follow them up. If a child is interested in design, he should study it, of course – but it should not be enforced any more than any subject. Same thing with languages. We are all different. Your emphasis seems to be materialistic, and that’s good for you – but certainly not for everyone. I’ve got awards for set and light designs on my wall for theatrical productions, and I don’t care overwhelmingly about design and never particularly studied it. That’s what makes a horse race. As to travel, yes, I hope everyone gets to, fine – but it’s a bit off topic, here. The idea is to allow a child to discover his interests, and then support his efforts to master them. Then, that person will grow up doing something that he or she actually loves to do for a living. If we all reached that level, what a lovely world this could be. There’s room for just about every expertise.

    • August 2, 2013 at 5:05 pm

      Hi Steve. Thanks for the reply. I’ll try to reply in order of the points you raise. The bottom line I think is that if you are to educate children at home – ‘home-schooling – simply studying traditional text/classroom based subjects and activity are not enough (I know you said they are simply suggestions but let us be honest, many parents will read that list as sacrosanct I would suggest).

      I certainly do not disapprove of studies in music history and animation – far from it. I suppose my mild gripe is the way that certain subjects are ‘clustered’ into key academic groups and I think this is what frustrates (confuses?) me with the curriculum map of subjects you have outlined. I taught the IB Diploma for seven years (an international post 16 qualification taught around the globe) and Design is grouped with Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Classed as a science. But it’s not a Science any more than it’s not an Art. It is a subject of application that sits in between the two We dealt with topics from stent design and development, smart materials, ergonomics, marketing and the core skills of creative thinking when solving problems. And yes, we made products (dental brace design, shoes, computer mice, car interiors, fashion ware, furniture, architectural models….).

      You mention awards for theatre lighting and design (well done by the way!) but that really is not what the subject is about – any more than Geography is about mountains and Biology is about muscles. I think we both seek clarity on what the subject actually is. It is not ‘shop’ as I believe it is called in the States.

      Incidentally I teach animation as part of my design course – all my students have to produce a video commercial for a product that requires the manufacture of scale sets, step motion modelling, mood board design and development, psychology of marketing from technology push to market pull, video and sound editing, finished production and the economic pitfalls of finance.

      I’m a supporter!

      I am not as seasoned as your good self, Steve having only been in education for 27 years but like you I’m also “just interested in kids doing well, discovering their interests and being encouraged in every way to follow them up. If a child is interested in design, he should study it, of course – but it should not be enforced any more than any subject”.

      The problem that can arise with homeschool, from my experience, is that it is only as good as the parents who direct/provide/offer the academic route to their child. I know you appreciate that. So if a child is interested in a subject that mom and dad are not keen on then it is not always the case that this passion is seen to fruition….

      My emphasis on education is certainly not about being materialistic (financial gain or maybe you mean manufacturing/material based?) far from it. I reiterate that Design is a thought process; not about making stuff any more than languages are simply about communication. This is where I find the real root of the problem. For me, the intellectual, creative and academic aspects of design should be at the core.

      I have consulted on the design and build of whole schools in India and Thailand where the architectural hub is a suite of Design & Technology studios, labs and workshops off which radiate work areas and classrooms for all the other subjects. And incidentally, where is the current surge in silicon technology, engineering and medical science occurring at the moment? India.

      I have actually worked as a teacher in schools where History, Geography, Design and Science were taught in two languages through to age 16. You deliver both in your class. The kids, for example, read an online textbook on Shakespeare written in French and then would discover about the French Renaissance in a text written in English. Many of the online Science resources were in Spanish or French and all were accessed via a hypertext curriculum in a fully lap-topped school where every kid from 4 to 16 was equipped with the technology. The kids collaborated and worked together.

      The languages point is not simply about travel – it’s about being able to relate to the culture as well as communicate in another language. Regardless of whether your university degree is Harvard or Oxford, the graduate who can communicate in more than one or two languages (irrespective of degree) will not only get the job, they will probably lead the business in the long run.

      I will check out the link you have included. Thanks for making me think a bit about this ☺ All the best for now.


      • August 3, 2013 at 8:35 am

        Hi again, Dave,

        Yes, I’ve struggled, as you do, with how subjects are grouped. I’ve often thought that, given the overlap many subjects have, grouping them is irrelevant and arbitrary, anyway. And given some of the High School and College texts I read, particularly in the sciences, they often seemed confused as well.

        I don’t think anyone reads my articles as “holy writ,” more’s the shame. I think homeschoolers are an independent lot by nature, and will determine for themselves what they wish to have their students study. I am trying to get them to weigh those studies heavily toward the student’s interests and strengths, rather than follow what I see to be an arbitrary “standard curriculum” enforced by the state, and useless to the majority of students.

        By materialistic, I don’t mean “capitalism” materialistic, I mean rooted in the physical (perhaps “mechanistic” would have been a better choice of words?), and yes, I do believe your responses weigh in that direction. Be happy to know I’m wrong. The arts are a classic case in point. Yes, there is something “material” about any art form. Even music is written down. But it is the inspiration, the idea, even the spiritual light coming on, that drives most art. I didn’t get that you were terribly interested in any of that, and of course, many, many students and families are. This is especially true, I believe, of homeschoolers, many of whom fled the schools because they simply don’t offer much in the way of the arts anymore, and have not for decades.

        As to languages, I can only say again that they are, of course, of use and of value -but not to everyone, Dave. Every student, every child is different. I’m a writer by profession, and my lack of a second language has never hindered my ability to work in other countries, with people who spoke other languages I did not speak. We found a way.

        Anyway, I do appreciate your serious look at these issues.

  17. September 19, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    I appreciate your thoughts here. Would you mind me asking why you wait until so late to introduce music and music theory?


    • September 20, 2013 at 9:42 am

      Are you asking about the curriculum I created? Those are just recommendations, I don’t care how early someone starts studying music. I’m a composer and concert accompanist, among other things, so I’m all for music studies, obviously. I do think that learning theory as such might be easier for a student at least 7 or 8. There is some math involved, though it isn’t too rough.

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