Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Generalist vs. Specialist

Is it better to be a well rounded generalist or a motivated, happy specialist?  Why do we insist on trying to make children generalist instead of embracing their love of learning about that one topic in which they want to be a specialist? The one topic that makes them light up and motivates them is the one thing we don’t encourage.

In my work at the library, I often see parents who want their kids to read books about topics their children don’t want to read about.  In the interest of privacy, I have created a fictional person to illustrate what I experience.  A woman brings in her second grader who is not a strong reader but he loves books about fishing.   He has read several books about fishing already and still wants more but his parent feels like he should read something else.   She wants him to read about history or dragons or time traveling kids, anything but the one thing that is motivating him to read.  She is worried that he won’t be “well rounded” enough; that focusing on one thing is bad so she strongly encourages him to read something besides fishing books.

I understand wanting to expose children to as many different things as possible and highly support it but that can be done without negating a child’s intense interest in a particular topic.  Read aloud to them, have books and magazines about many different things around the house, take your child lots of places, watch documentaries, meet interesting people in different fields of work but don’t suggest to a child that they should stop investing so much time in the thing they love.

Doesn’t it make more sense to let him read everything he can get his hands on that’s related to fishing.  It will improve his reading ability and his feelings about reading.  Perhaps through reading about fishing, he will also learn about other things like river ecology, biology and who knows what else.   If he grows up to be an ecologist, will it really matter if he read “Little House on the Prairie” or “Charlotte’s Web” when he was 9 years old?   When you go to the doctor, do you want someone who is fanatical about medicine or do you want a doctor who is pretty good at medicine but also knows how to cook, do geometry, spell obscure words and tap dance?   I will pick the specialist every time.  I think aiming to make kids be generalists is basically the same as educating for mediocrity.  It also makes learning not fun.   If kids loved what they were learning about, they might just learn more not less.  If a child is interested in what he is studying, he will remember it, may be led to learn about other things and will have the benefit of also being a happy person.  Isn’t that what we really want for our kids is happiness?  Happiness is doing what you love, being really good at it and being valued for that skill and knowledge. 

If a kid is crazy about something, then help him/her get his hands on as much info about that topic as possible.  You will be surprised how far a motivated, happy person can go!

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