When I think about my K-12 education, I get a little sad. Although I had several amazing teachers, I worry that the content and structure of my overall education was selected somewhat arbitrarily. My grade school and junior high school both adhered to a philosophy of broad domain curriculum design, but lessons tended to lack context.
As an educator, I always begin each unit by giving students an extremely broad overview that provides context for all upcoming lessons. I also work in themes: if we’re studying the civil war in “social studies,” we learn about science and literature from the 1860s. I often use a single book or story as the theme that extends to each domain of my teaching.
Recently, I’ve been inspired by a certain excellent student to create a unit focused on Sherlock Holmes. In addition to practicing literary analysis and creative writing, we will learn about Tesla, Edison, and Pasteur. We’re already discussing the effects of compulsory education in England, as well as the global impact of the Second Anglo-Afghan War. My older students can relate that war to contemporary Western military action in Afghanistan. My oldest students can even relate Victorian indecency laws to the current debate regarding “gay marriage!”
Because Dr. Watson doesn’t favor a particularly pithy style of writing, we’re using this charming book to familiarize ourselves with three of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories:
I like Sherlock Holmes. I really like Sherlock Holmes. I read the original stories as a kid and immediately identified with Sherlock. As an adult, I’m a little embarrassed to know silly Sherlock details like the names of tertiary characters, but I still have a lot of affection for the world’s only consulting detective (yes, I think the BBC show is adorable).
I have an older student who also likes Sherlock Holmes. He really likes Sherlock Holmes. I know who Victor Trevor is; this student has read essays analyzing Trevor’s importance in canon and non-canon Holmes stories. I know what happened at Reichenbach Falls; this kid knows the date that it happened because he’s got a timeline of everything Sherlock Holmes ever did. If I bring up Holmes during a lesson, my student becomes very excited and has a lot of difficulty getting back on task. His behavior is familiar to me as both a gifted student and an educator of gifted students.
Gifted and twice-exceptional students can be prone to obsessions. When a gifted student becomes interested in a subject, she often immerses herself completely, unintentionally memorizing trivial facts, drawing diagrams, and sharing her newfound knowledge with everyone in the world. There’s a giddiness to finding something new to learn. Self-directed learning is extremely pleasurable. I spent a month in high school learning medical abbreviations and another month on forensic lingo. Why? I don’t know. Because it was new. In elementary school, I collected books about fae and could talk at length about the “fair folk.” We’ve all met children (mostly boys, it seems, but I’m sure there are tons of exceptions) who can list thousands of dinosaurs and their traits.
In A Study in Scarlet, Dr. John Watson, the narrator of the original Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, shares his surprise that the brilliant Sherlock Holmes is “ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.” Apparently Holmes has decided that it’s unnecessary for him to know that the Earth revolves around the sun. He can’t spare the neurons, it seems. This passage will likely resonate with many parents and teachers of gifted students. One of my brightest students, for example, could never seem to remember the order of months in the year. He breezed through math two grade levels above his own, though, and could comprehend incredibly complex stories. Of course, I can’t allow my student to not know what comes after March, can I? Isn’t it my obligation as an educator to ensure that my students are fluent in “common knowledge”? Public schools insist (philosophically, at least) that students master the basics before studying advanced material. Certainly the personalized curricula I create for my students are always based on a broad foundation of general education. However, Sherlock Holmes makes me wonder if every kid really should be expected to know all the basics. Although I don’t intend to abandon or even deemphasize my commitment to a broad foundation of learning, the issue is worth researching and debating, I think.
Parents, do you encourage your children to pursue their “obsessions”? Do you allow your children to neglect the basics in favor of more specific interests? I’m especially interested in how homeschooling families address this issue.
Teachers, do you think a broad general education is appropriate for all students? Should students ever be allowed to just skip material they don’t like?
Is the act of learning more important than the content?