Help me make a plan for my son's education
August 21, 2016 3:06 PM   Subscribe

I like plans, but I generally have no idea where things are going from year to year with my son's education (he is now 13). He's bright, and half-way through a degree course. We fumble a new plan each year, but I still don't really know exactly what we would best do next and what distant destination we should be aiming for. We're in New Zealand.

I remember when he was three or four I asked a local education expert what she would do if he were her kid. Her response immediately was "homeschool, without a doubt". Being rather traditional, I pretty much ignored this suggestion as a weird hippy/religious option. However, after six months at his first primary school (aged 5) we had a final fight with the idiot headmaster and I withdrew him (kids here don't need to be enrolled until they are six, so we had six months in hand where we didn't need to go to school). Those next six months were the best fun we have ever had, so I applied to homeschool him. I had no experience of the school curriculum and no experience of the average kid, so we just got on with studying and playing for a couple of years. I tell him stuff, he remembers it.

We had to move a few years back after significant earthquakes disrupted life over here, and our local primary school had a great new headmistress who was a maths geek. He enrolled and had a lot of fun while we continued with maths/science at home (either me in the classroom or him doing half days). She connected me to the local high school who were fabulous, letting him sit exams and attend the odd classes when internal assessments were done. They in turn connected me with the local university, which offered a 100-level maths course for high school students. When the great headmistress left we didn't get the same attitude, and we went back to homeschooling for a year or so at the end of primary school. So by 10 he had completed the required high school qualifications and university entrance and his first university papers, even though he'd only been taking maths and physics at that point.

The university sadly didn't offer any courses beyond 100-level without being on-campus, so we transferred to the one university in New Zealand who offer correspondence courses. The way this seems to work is that the papers on offer are listed on their website, we pick some and pay for them, they send the coursework out and give a date for the exam. Assignments are by email. Apart from the initial application for registration, we haven't managed to have a serious conversation with anyone about what the plan should be. They did originally ask for proof of his "work ethic". He doesn't have one. He reads the coursework, walks into the exam, leaves early and they give him an A+. I can't remember him ever revising. However, they considered that good enough.

Fast forward to this year. He decided he would like to experience high school (over here, this is five years aged 13-18ish), and so started this year (January 2016). He's having a great time with all sorts of varied subjects he's not studied seriously before, such as languages, design, art and so on. They are extremely helpful, reorganising the school curriculum so that he can attend high level chemistry classes when his cohort are doing basic science, allowing him to work on his university assignments during maths lessons and so on. He is currently doing two university papers per term (half of the usual amount), usually one in maths and one in computers.

So now he's got about half of the necessary credits for his degree, mostly in maths subjects but some in computers and physics. He's doing fine in his first year in high school, making friends and having fun. He spends far too much time playing computer games, so no surprises there.

But it annoys me that I can't see where this is going. I can't find anyone to talk to about how the degree progresses. Nor why it should, of course. The university won't talk to me because I'm not the student. He is thirteen and doesn't know what he wants to do of course because he doesn't know what options are available. I am concerned that there don't seem to be many papers left that he hasn't taken (that are available by correspondence).

It may, of course, be because he's overtaken me. I am fine up to first-year maths but am somewhat bewildered by what he's studying now. Similarly, I ran a software company for many years and can keep up with his computer papers but am likely to get left behind fairly soon at the rate he's going (although I can clearly see that he has significant promise with his coding having employed dozens of programmers in the past).

I should add that he's otherwise pretty rounded. Not an athlete but not the last around the track, generally as grumpy and self-centred as the average early teenager, usually happy, fairly proud of his achievements and very keen on programming. It's looking like "his thing" is morphing from maths to computers, which is no surprise to me. When he's used his allotted internet time per day, he programs for fun.

I have seen many helpful comments by academic hive members and wondered whether any would be able to help me believe that we had some kind of plan as to what to do next, and/or where we should be aiming. I obviously know far too little about how universities work and am struggling with not having them locally available to discuss this. It seems to make sense that his first degree would be in maths and computers (perhaps even a double degree). Do we just keep on buying papers and doing them? Is there something I should be preparing for when he's older? With a normal kid I would know what to expect: get to 17/18 having as much fun as possible while studying and then (should he wishes) going to university to study whatever turns him on. At the moment I can't even see the plan a few years hence, and I'm worried that I am missing something that I should be doing.
posted by tillsbury to Education (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
We're not exactly at your level, by a long shot. But I wonder if this guy's story would be inspiring but also grounding. Michael Kearney-podcast episode .

If I were you , I'd be inclined to try and ask Michael personally for any insight he could give. He sounds pretty generous with his time and a delightfully normal human.

You also sound like you're doing an amazing job. Are there gifted and talented schools/classes in your area? Their staff would be across this. And the university's own career counsellor would likely talk to you both. Sounds like conversations should include your son, not be about him. Which is kind of how it starts out when they're tiny and is a hard mind set to change as they age. Ask me how I realised this! (Especially as he's still only young and university is a pretty adult thing.)
posted by taff at 3:39 PM on August 21, 2016

The university won't talk to me because I'm not the student.

It might be worth contacting the university, specifically to ask for how this works when the student is underage. Most universities have something like an academic advisor who helps students answer just this question - and because your son is 13 presumably you should be able to participate in that conversation as well.
posted by Paragon at 3:47 PM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was a bright kid growing up in NZ - not quite like your son, but I did a lot of extension classes and probably ly inspired similar "what do we do with this kid" conversations.

One thing I remember is that the smart kids were always pushed toward maths - and it might be worth checking in about whether this really is your kid's passion. My experience was that maths was the only opportunity I had for meaningfully difficult schoolwork, so people saw me as unusually good at it and pushed me further in that direction.

Turns out: total humanities geek, but I didn't figure that out until much later. I wish I had had the opportunity to explore those interests at school. Also, essay based subjects might be a good way for him to develop a work ethic - my study approach was similar to your son's, but the humanities taught me how to knuckle down and study.

If you can, I'd recommend getting him into some subjects (at uni/high school/whatever) that he *doesn't* excel at. The best thing he can learn right now is how to manage being bad at something, working hard and getting better. Not learning that as a teenager had a huge impact on the rest of my life - I really wish I had. Also, he needs to learn the skill of collaborating with students who don't think in the same way he does. Life is tough for a former "smart kid" until you figure that out.
posted by embrangled at 3:53 PM on August 21, 2016 [11 favorites]

Oh, also: read Mindset by Carol Dweck. The kid should probably read it too.
posted by embrangled at 4:32 PM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Is it out of the question for your family to move to a city that has a university in it? Then he could start attending classes in person while still going to school part time and living at home.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 6:36 PM on August 21, 2016

If you are asking about the degree structure, you should be able to find some sort of handbook on the university website. In that, you will find degrees like bachelor of science, or bachelor of mathematics, or bachelor of computer science. This should then list details of how many papers at each of 100, 200, and 300 level need to be taken to complete the degree. He will have to major in something, and that major will probably specific, for example, that you need to take 8 papers from a given set of options, of which 2 need to be at 300 level. (I made those numbers up, but they are plausible). Once he has completed the requirements for that degree, he would be eligible to graduate.

You can probably do this by continuing to pay for individual papers, but if he hasn't actually been accepted to and enrolled into an actual degree with one of the above sorts of names, the papers he has done so far won't yet be accredited towards the degree. Usually there is an entrance requirement to enrol into an actual degree, and he would have to apply and be given a letter of acceptance. However back when I was a geek in NZ taking university papers during high school, it was easy to get them accredited towards the degree once I finally enrolled. I just talked to the student office and they looked at my transcripts, and added a note to my file. Nowadays it's all electronic so might be more automatic.

Sometimes there is a limit on how much of a degree can be accredited from papers taken before official enrolment. That's usually intended for students who change degree, or who transfer form another university, but it might still apply here. You can probably find this out by googling too.

Finally, your son will probably want to take a higher degree after he finishes high school, e.g. a masters or phd, perhaps at an elite overseas university. If so, start finding out what they would want as prerequisites and make sure he has that. E.g. Some European universities require all students to have studied a foreign language (at university level). A mathemetics higher degree at some universities counts as arts, and may have arts prerequisites. Or there just might be certain papers he should make sure to take within maths or computer science. For example, if he wants to study mathematics at Cambridge, see what professors would supervise him and what their fields of research are, and make sure he takes some relevant papers if they are offered.

If he wants one day to apply for a Rhodes scholarship or similar, he'll need to prove he is well rounded, e.g. It's good to get involved in sport, volunteering, or other outside activities as well as academics.

(Source: NZer who studied but never taught in the NZ system, but who teaches in academia in Australia.)
posted by lollusc at 6:49 PM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh, final thoughts, in case you don't know, people like your son will almost certainly be able to get a scholarship paying all the fees no matter where he goes to university. So if you start thinking about elite universities around the world, pay no attention to the fees they charge. He won't be paying them. I wish my family had known that when I was thinking about where to study. We just assumed everywhere other than a NZ university would be out of the question for our finances.

And also, he might be in for a shock when he does hit the limit of his "read the course material, sit the exam, get an A+ strategy." I hit it at second year in maths, and at graduate level in the humanities and I didn't really have any other tools in my toolkit, so it took me a while to figure out how to learn things that weren't immediately obvious. So I second what others said above about how one of the best things you can do for him is find something he isn't naturally good at and teach him how to train himself to improve, how to practise and learn, and how to enjoy it even if he isn't the best. It might be something non academic, even. But it will be worth it.
posted by lollusc at 6:58 PM on August 21, 2016

If this is for all intents and purposes a remote learning program there are going to be other remote programs, if not in New Zealand then elsewhere, that you could explore. Agree that learning to progress in a subject that does not come easily would be an excellent skill to acquire. Without being anywhere near as bright as your son appears to be I still had a very easy time at school and really hate, to this day, having to do things I've actually got to apply myself to.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:12 PM on August 21, 2016

If he runs out of papers in NZ then Australia has lots of Unis that do online degrees. They should be reasonably easy to cross credit. I know New Zealanders living here get charged the domestic rate, I'm not sure about New Zealanders studying overseas. I'll find out. (I work at a university in Australia).

So that you can actually talk to the university about your son's degree you may need to get a note added to his information that you are authorised to act on his behalf (this really should already be on there) and then mention that every time you speak to someone.

In the course information they send out at the beginning of each semester there should be the lecturers' contact details and office hours. I would contact them to be pointed in the right direction for course advice.

As for other things as your son gets older maybe look at an AFS exchange to a non English speaking country so that there isn't so much of a focus on school work but more on language learning? There are heaps of different scholarships available.

There is also Outward Bound or Spirit of New Zealand if you wanted more non school focused challenges.
posted by poxandplague at 8:41 PM on August 21, 2016

I assume he's at Massey since that's who gives distance courses. Have you read the University calendar? It should outline exactly what is needed to fulfill each degree, down to the individual papers. Every Uni in NZ has one, it's the go to reference guide for everything and is a legal document. You should never be confused about what goes into a degree if the calendar is doing it's job.

You should also both be able to discuss his degree with an academic advisor. I've used both them and the advocacy services at Massey (although, like, 15 years ago) and they were worth seeking out. You will probably need your son to either go with you or give some kind of permission for you to be talking with them, but this should fall under whanau support so there should be a mechanism available for that. Personally I think you should be doing it together. Theoretically the high school's careers advisor should also have advice for you since they are supposed to help students decide where to go to Uni in the fist place.

The biggest downside (and upside) to degrees in NZ is that they're totally specialised. So he can easily get a degree only ever doing maths for example. Great when you have a fully rounded high school education behind you because you don't waste time, not so good as a substitute for that high school. I know a few people who did some or all of a Uni degree while at high school, but they all did school also (although often leaving a year early) and still took some time to do in person University after leaving before moving on to graduate studies or employment.

Assuming he's thinking of more study long term, graduate degrees involve a more than just learning things like you do in undergrad. For example, you need to be able to synthesize disparate types of information and think critically and learn outside the curriculum and other stuff like that. It's quite a big jump, and some of it just comes from maturity and experience rather than having enough knowledge to pass the undergrad papers. So there is long term academic value to the kinds of soft skills he'll gain from high school etc, even if now it just looks like having fun.
posted by shelleycat at 11:32 PM on August 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

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