Kids Don’t Need to Be "Well Rounded." They Need to Be Passionate.

 A few years ago, I started watching a TV show called Master Chef Junior. It’s a cooking competition where kids from ages 8-15 compete each week to see who can cook the best dishes for a panel of expert judges. (It’s a spin-off of Master Chef, where adults compete. A similar child competition show is Project Runway Junior, also a spin-off, where adolescents compete to produce the most professional garments.)

I often watch the show in awe. How many hours of practice must it take for these kids to become such experts?

These kids produce phenomenally intricate dishes that judges frequently say could be served at top-notch restaurants. I often watch the show in awe. How many hours of practice must it take for these kids to become such experts? Is their time really best served by focusing on this one thing at the expense of all the other things they could learn with that time, things that don’t connect with their passions?

This has gotten me thinking about one of the persistent (and I think mistaken) ideas of our time; the idea that a good education prepares one to be “well-rounded”. In a previous article, I argued that we need to get rid of the idea that all kids need to learn the same stuff in schools. I think a corollary is getting rid of the idea that kids need to be well-rounded, which is one of the reasons why we have so much standardized curriculum.

We Can Survive Without Math

The biggest argument I hear for why schools should produce well-rounded kids is that to be successful in life, it is best that you know how to do a wide smattering of things for the sake of versatility. Kids may need math, knowledge of botany, the ability to read plays, who knows? Well-rounded kids -- the idea goes -- who know a little of everything, will be the most prepared for a variety of situations.

Maybe this was a plausible view before the information revolution increased our social networks, but I don’t think it is very true anymore. Take today for instance, when I had a computer issue in my office. I went down the hall to get help from an IT specialist. I then went out for lunch and bought a sandwich that I’d have no idea how to make on my own. I did internet research on a topic I needed to find information on.

It’s hard to imagine that I’d have been better served had I been more “well-rounded” and known a bit about how to repair computers, make exotic sandwiches, and about my research topic. I don’t need to be well-rounded, and neither do you…because when we have problems, we can almost always find ways, people, and resources to help us through our areas of weakness.

I don’t need to be well-rounded, and neither do you.

Recently, I had a conversation with someone about education, and I was making an argument against standardized curricula. The person asked how, without standardization, we could guarantee that everyone know, say, basic math. She used herself as an example of someone who is not good at math, much to her embarrassment.

Leaving aside the fact that both of us went through years of schooling where we were taught math --a lot of good that did!-- I pointed out that both of us were adults who somehow managed to function pretty well despite an acknowledged deficit in our math skills. When I come across math that is difficult for me, I use a number of strategies: my wife is good at math, there are videos I can find online that show me how to do the math I need at that moment, and there are even websites that will solve some common types of equations (like measurement conversions) if I plug in the variables.

We all do this. Even the most well-rounded are bad at many things, and we rely on our interconnectedness to solve those problems. I don’t know how cars work, but I can call a mechanic or watch online videos for basic repairs. I can’t convert inches to centimeters but there’s an app for that, etc.

Specializing Is Better Than Being Well-RoundedSocial networks work so well because everyone doesn’t know the same stuff.

This is surely a controversial view, but there is research supporting it. Recently Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach published a book with a telling title: The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. About education, they write:

Learning… isn’t just about developing new knowledge and skills. It’s also about learning to collaborate with others, recognizing what knowledge we have to offer and what gaps we must rely on others to help us fill.

Sloman and Fernbach’s idea is that especially in the information age, knowledge exists less in individual brains and more on social networks, a theory often referred to as “distributed cognition.” And just like with economies, these social networks work so well because everyone doesn’t know the same stuff. We specialize in something, all possessing different knowledge, strengths, and weaknesses. Rather than trying to fill individual heads with a list of diverse stuff “everyone needs to know,” we might be better served by allowing folks to know different things. I’m strong in this but weak in that; you’re strong in that and weak in this. You will benefit from my knowledge and I’ll benefit from yours.

Specializing Really Works

Instead of well-roundedness, maybe what our kids need is agility. If this still scares folks, it may be because they are (understandably) imagining savant-like people who excel at a few things and can’t function outside of those spaces. So let me suggest a new goal: instead of well-roundedness, maybe what our kids need is agility. Well-roundedness means being prepared for anything by knowing a diverse array of stuff; whatever the situation, there is a chance the person will know something about it. Agility is the ability to adapt to change, not because one knows diverse stuff, but because one knows how to learn what one needs in any situation. The well-rounded person isn’t stymied by math because they know a little math. The agile person isn’t stymied by math because when they confront a math challenge, they use whatever tools they can to figure out a workaround.

Watching Master Chef Junior gives me a mix of emotions. On one hand, it is a stunning testament to the potential for greatness in our youth f. It is an example of sustained focus and practice leading to mastery. On the other hand, I get a bit sad when I realize that many of those kids are forced to learn a wide array of things they will likely never use - things that take them away from what they are great at. All in the name of well-roundedness.