Educating hypothetical children

As I get older I find myself looking back at my lives and ask the question - how could I have been better prepared? What could I have learned earlier, practiced sooner, gained experience with beforehand that would have made a difference in my life? If I could go back in time what would I tell myself to pay more attention to and what would I advise to ignore? No one gets to execute on this fantasy, that we know of, but with children we are afforded the opportunity of providing them with the educational upbringing that we would have liked for ourselves.

Of course a childhood should be full of play and adventure but it should also be full of instruction whose goal is achieving optimal outcomes in adulthood. From view of the instructor this is an optimal control problem, where instructive actions are provided in sequence to control a partially known model of the child towards a goal state of success in adulthood - however that is defined. While undoubtedly there are elements of "success" that are uniquely defined by each individual, or within a career path, some elements of a successful life are universal such as eating healthy food, proper fitness, achieving livable wealth, and learning the fundamental elements of how the modern world works. The public education system attempts to provide this in a general fashion where the control policy must be distributed over every child of a particular age group across an entire state or continental region. The price for generality is that no child is served particularly well, no career path properly trained for, and basic life skills such as cooking and financials are untaught while social studies and literature are taught repeatability every year of the students development.

I'm in a place where I'm fantasizing about having children without having to face any of the realities. Ideally you have the time to do your job and raise your children but that's not the reality. Most of the job of raising children is offloaded to the state or a private teaching institution. Some people choose to homeschool but that is usually from the perspective of instilling a religious education rather than a rigorous education in discipline X. I'm growing anxious about sending my children through the same struggling education model that I went through that left me in many critical ways unprepared for adulthood. So I wanted to work though / share six ideas I had for what I would have liked to have received for an education as a child. Some parts won't be applicable to everyone - that's fine - this is about the optimal strategy for my past self given my current present. It's also what I hope would be close to the optimal strategy for my children.


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Cooking

Eating is something you have to do 3 times a day, every day of your life, and most of the time you have to make the food for yourself. It's probably the single activity you'll do the most in your life outside of sleeping. Given that you're going to be eating so often - cooking is something that you'll want to know how to do really well so you can both enjoy your food and be able to make healthy food. While some people certainly grow up with their parents cooking and inviting them to help with the meal preparation and work, most people of my generation that I know did not have this as part of their childhood. My parents rarely involved me in the cooking process, outside of the chore tasks such as cutting celery or cucumbers, and they didn't much know how to cook themselves. By the time I left home for college the only thing I knew how to make was a batch of bagel bites in the microwave.

As I've gotten older I've realized how rich food and how complicated a craft it can be both on the artistic side and the engineering side. It takes time to become a good cook. A lot of time. It takes time to learn the foods and the flavors, cooking methods, soups and salads and breads and desserts. Unfortunately I've found it takes so much dedicated time that as an adult it is very difficult to learn and maintaining a job + hobbies + a life. However, I can think back to many many opportunities I had as a child to learn the skills when instead I probably was doing homework while my parents made dinner. Breakfast was never more than cereal or something that fit in the toaster.

Cooking is the most important skill we fail to include in our education model. If it can't be taught in school then I don't know why there can't be private tutors for cooking the same way we have them for piano or sports.


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Fitness

And Nutrition

Healthy mind + healthy body + healthy spirit = healthy life.

P.E. (physical education) is supposed to teach a child in school about how to keep a healthy body. Instead, I learned ... I can't recall learning anything actually. There was one time I took P.E. in high school and it required lifting weights. I hated that at the time because I didn't know how and I was physically weaker than other boys my age - but looking back I've very grateful for that opportunity because it got me out of my fear of the weight room and when I got to college I was able to go to the gym and increase my strength.

There are many things about fitness and nutrition that I don't understand even today as an adult. It seems like the right foods to eat are changing all the time - how to stay fit and thin and healthy is a competition of trends in which all parties claim to see results but few have any scientific backing. I appreciate that there is a real science of nutrition which is out there. Finding that science and teaching it to kids so that as adults they don't get bamboozled by the latest eating fad is going to save a lot of anxiety while they enjoy their delicious and skillfully made home cooked meals.


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Scientific Inquiry

And Creativity

Reading about someone else's discoveries doesn't give much insight into how to make them yourself. We give children many textbooks on science which cover the discoveries of the last two centuries in great categorical detail. While they do a good job of covering relevant work, and largely at drawing connections and organizing the body of human knowledge, they don't provide a vehicle for practicing science yourself. You can't learn how to do science from reading those books any more than looking at famous pictures in a museum can make you an artist. In art class they know this - you do art in art class.

Sure - it's important to know about what else is out there and what good work looks like. However the primary purpose is to learn the craft of making art. But in science education its backwards - the primary focus is on learning about what is out there already and what good science looks like but hardly any time spent on performing scientific inquiry. The gap between being able to read and understand others scientific work and being able to do it yourself is large which I learned when going to grad school. Children should be practicing and developing scientific based inquiry early.



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Finance 

And Real Estate

When you don’t have any capital it can be difficult to will up the desire to learn about financial instruments and different types asset classes. For me personally, if I heard them being discussed it would give me anxiety over my financial situation which historically has been meeting a modest expenditure rate without any savings. It's hard to want to hear / learn about all the different ways to manage lots of money when you have none and don’t see much in your future. For most of my twenties I had no savings - I only worked in industry long enough to pay off my undergraduate student loans and you don’t make much in graduate school. I didn't know about 401Ks and other retirement savings vehicles. It's not a conversation that typically came up with my parents who like many people didn’t share their own financial information with their children nor probably received much instruction themselves.

Sure - complicated financial products and services won’t be for everyone and can probably be learned on demand. Everyone should understand a basic balance sheet that tracks income and expenditures for themselves. Everyone should understand basic financial instruments such as debt. They should also understand how a mortgage works and how the buying, selling, and renting components work together in a real estate market. Basically, children shouldn’t be going into adult life with years worth of studies of European history and no knowledge of how to conduct themselves financially.


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Design

Human preferences are not always about function. All clothing, at some level, performs the basic function of protecting and masking the skin. All well made tea kettles boil water pretty much to the same effectiveness. All well made toasters make toast to about the same effectiveness. Why do humans care about what things look like if they perform the job? Why do we care if the colors are in specific combinations or if the lines make curves or straight corners? Personally, my belief is that the desire for seeing order and structured patterns in objects and our environment is that structure indicates control and mastery over the nature. The perfect right corners and even sides of a square- despite being a simple shape - is rare in nature and producing it from natural materials indicates that one has the ability to shape the world into something else. Constructing coordinated color displays is only possible if one is able to gather and pull together many different pigments and have the time to arrange them into patterns.  

Design is about how you achieve your goal as much as the goal itself. Design is about fashion. It's about what the space you live in looks like. It's about looking good no matter what your style is. It's about thinking about how other people will use / interact / perceive whatever it is that you are making whether that's a product or yourself. It's a skill that can be learned from creative experimentation and failure just like any other skill and the earlier you can learn it the longer you have to live with good design in your life.  


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Interaction

Communication skills is more than learning how to do public speaking. Writing is part of it. Day to day interaction. Asking someone how their weekend was. Asking them how they liked X or if they didn't like X. Being genuine in how you spend time with another person. I personally have found that elements of Improv have been very useful for me when I think about how to improve my communication with other people. Taking what someone else is offering you in the conversation and building on it, building spirals of positivity, and staying light on your feet and letting what happens happen has been a very useful guide towards improving my communication skills.

Knowing how to talk and interact with other people is a crucial part of a happy and successful life.