Most kids spend the majority of their lives in school. If I had children, I would want them to get the most out of the unique opportunities that school provides. These do not include reading, writing, worksheets, or textbooks. In short, these opportunities do not include anything that students can do at home by themselves. (One caveat is that this is in an ideal world where children have resources and a suitable home environment to do work traditionally done in the classroom.) Below I highlight two such opportunities accompanied by personal anecdotes demonstrating how these shaped my grade-school days.

Probably the most important opportunity school affords is the ability to collaborate with many peers of similar age. Communication, collaboration, teamwork, giving and receiving feedback, and teaching and learning from one another are fundamental skills that serve people well throughout their entire lives. Activities that capitalize on students’ exposure to peers will always involve teamwork. Some ideas: planting a vegetable garden; building a model bridge; writing, directing, acting in, and producing a school play or musical; starting a band; creating an art project; preparing a research report and/or PowerPoint presentation; making a sundial. There are many different dimensions to these activities and no single way of doing them. But all require creative thinking – verbal, mathematical, or both – and collaboration.

Elementary school was at least fourteen years ago, and I don’t remember much anymore. But I do remember certain activities: building a pyramid out of sugar cubes, acting in the Shakespeare plays that we put on every year, competing in chess tournaments, touring historic houses in Salt Lake City and preparing a report, tutoring the younger children, watching my peers go to the chalkboard to show us how they solved math problems, helping host a garage sale and auction, memorizing and reciting poems for the class. These stand out in my mind because they were very real-world. Students need experiences like these, where they also learn math and language skills along the way.

Another opportunity is access to mentors; mostly teachers, but also principals and other administrators. Mentors should invoke critical thinking, pose new questions, guide students’ thought processes, demonstrate creativity, and help students arrive at their own conclusions backed by logic, reason, and knowledge. They facilitate hands-on activities and help students work together collaboratively. Ideally they will not only provide knowledge, but also refine students’ skills and build their character by fostering morality, comradery, discipline, and perseverance.

When I was about eight years old, a teacher gave me her keys so that I could fetch something from a locked cupboard to give to another teacher. I was thrilled that she trusted me with her keys and determined to maintain her trust. I did what was asked of me, but thought I should leave her keys on her desk where she would find them and then went back about my business. A while later, my teacher came to me with a very concerned look and asked, “Katie, where are my keys?” Even though she spoke very calmly, I could sense her anxiety. “I put them on your desk,” I said. She was relieved, and told me to always return items directly. I learned a valuable lesson that day about building communication and trust with others.

When students capitalize on being in a classroom environment by engaging in constant interaction with peers and mentors, they learn life lessons needed beyond school and throughout their careers. By applying math and language to complex everyday activities and leaving independent exploration (via online learning tools, worksheets, textbooks, etc.) as homework, students will likely remember these activities and retain the skills/knowledge needed to participate in them.


7 thoughts on “What would I want my kids to do in school?

  1. This makes a lot of sense. What advice would you give to parents who want their kids to take advantage of these opportunities?

    1. Hi Michael, I suggest looking for online options that kids can explore on their own. Motion Math (an iPhone and iPad app), Mathalicious, Virtual Nerd, Interactivate ( are all free education sites (last I checked) that offer engaging ideas that students can explore on their own, at their own pace. I am especially a fan of simulations, so definitely check out Interactivate. Having a mindset that is open to learning math is also really important, so parents should always talk about math with a positive and enthusiastic attitude. Try to come up with math questions that you don’t even know, and you can figure them out together. Things involving estimation are always good (e.g. when you’re on a road trip, how long will it take to get to your destination? How much will you spend on gas? Have a contest on who can make the closest guess for how far away the road is in the distance, and use the odometer to see who wins!). Playing with cards and dice is a good way to build probability skills (e.g. If you roll the dice 6 times, how many times do you think it will land on 1?). This is a good applet for probability and sampling distributions: (though it requires Java). I can think of a lot more ideas so if you have more specific questions, feel free to ask!

      1. Thank you! Very good ideas.
        What do you think about homeschooling? Would you do it for your own kids?

      2. No, I would not homeschool my kids for the reasons outlined in the article; namely that doing so would deny them the opportunity to collaborate, communicate, and learn from their peers — which in my view is arguably the most important characteristic of traditional school. However, I would definitely observe classes and meet every teacher before enrolling my child at a particular school. =) I would want to make sure my kids were at a school where they’re doing a lot of collaborative work.

      3. That’s what I was thinking as well, until I’ve read this:
        It seems like homeschooled children turn out to be more social. I’m not so sure how to explain it.

        I recently learned that one of the most brilliant people I know (David Dalrymple) was homeschooled until he was 9, and it worked so well for him that he went straight to college at that age.
        I also read a book called “Talent is Overrated”, which claims that geniuses are made, not born, often through homeschooling from very early age.

        I haven’t formed a clear opinion about homeschooling yet, so right now I’m just analyzing arguments from both sides.

      4. That’s interesting! Though, I have to wonder what their definition of “social” is in their research. Being friendly and having a lot of friends is one way to be social; another is to know how to work in a team and play up each other’s strengths. The latter is where I think traditional school is important, if utilized effectively. This skill is also independent of how brilliant someone is. It just depends on the individual student, his/her strengths, and what you as a parent think is best for allowing them to reach their full potential.

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