What Did You Learn in School Today?
Updated: Jan 31
Last week I wrote about the overloaded and ineffective schedule of the typical public school. I made the claim that students should be spending much less time in school and, while in school, much less time in desks. The immediate effect of this change would have to be fewer subjects taught to children of all ages.
So if children are studying fewer subjects in the classroom, how do we decide what they should be? I don’t trust the way we currently decide. Too often schools choose the subject matter based on current fashions in workforce development (Everyone needs to learn website design!), the prestige of certain types of knowledge (Our students begin trigonometry in eighth grade!), or simply what they had to learn in school themselves (Dammit, if I had to slog through Faulkner in ninth grade, then so do they!). To determine what fields of study are genuinely appropriate to a human-shaped education, we should ask ourselves several questions.
First, what can students learn at a given age? We have plenty of understanding of mental and physical development as well as information about education systems of other countries now and in the past to show us what works and what doesn’t. But we don’t often ask ourselves the right questions. Does a third-grader have enough knowledge and experience to benefit from conducting a scientific experiment? Not really, although who doesn’t like seeing baking soda and vinegar fizz or classmates gag at the sight of a dead frog? Can most seventeen-year-olds really appreciate calculus or Nathaniel Hawthorne? Again, no; in fact, I’d say most adults don’t need to appreciate calculus or Nathaniel Hawthorne.
However, some subjects are much easier to teach to younger children than to older ones. Foreign language is more readily absorbed by children under eight, but we save languages until high school and then teach them badly. Younger kids can also memorize to good effect, especially when information is tied to music and movement. Schools moved away from memorization some decades ago and now say they aim for understanding, not rote (always said like a bad word) memorization. That’s a good trend on the whole, but a seven-year-old can memorize more than she can understand, and once information is in her head, she can return to it later when she has more capacity for understanding. For example, when I was in third grade in the American School in Athens, Greece, I memorized a Greek children’s song that I can still sing. I had a vague idea it was about boats, but that was all. As an adult, I’ve returned to that song and found cognates in it to other Indo-European languages, noticed declensions and conjugations, and retained some vocabulary that I would otherwise have forgotten. Plus it’s a cute song. A school designed for real children would focus on fun and practical memorization in the early grades and on a deeper understanding as they mature. The recently popular Classical method of education emphasizes this pattern, and there is much to be said for it, done well.
And of, course, learning can and should be lifelong. Not everything needs to be covered in the first few years of life.
So an objective, experiential, common-sense approach to choosing subject matter should supplant the current system of listening to textbook publishers and educational fads. Phonics, practical arithmetic, foreign language, outdoor wisdom such as gardening, basic identification and ecology, creative arts, and stories – lots of stories – about history, science, real-world issues, and ethical living: these would be a good selection for the younger grades. The same subjects would continue as students mature, but at a deeper level; geography, civics, home economics, carpentry, finance, and debate could be added.
Second, it’s important to consider what can actually be taught in a classroom setting. Not everything can be, and not everything should be. Obviously physical activities should be performed, not studied about, but that’s also true of much job training, civic awareness, and practical life skills. A minority of the things students should learn should be taught to them while they are sitting in desks, with pen and paper or computer at hand. Writing obviously should be taught in a classroom; history, geography, literature, and the beginnings of science, math, and foreign language can be started at a desk, although those subjects shouldn’t stop there.
So how did we end up with the list of subjects we have now? There are enough villains to go around in this area: textbook publishers are a big part of it, as are academic researchers with obscure PhD dissertation topics who study education in the abstract. I’ve already mentioned that society wants schools to fix its problems; employers also ask schools to prepare workers for them – although that has been turning out so abysmally that I’m amazed they’re still trying. (Actually, most employers in Indiana are now asking my community college system to provide their future workers with what used to be thought of as a high school education, which is just kicking the can down the road.)
There are also fads in education that school administrators and guidance counselors grab hold of in their desire to do something good for their students. Right now the fad is STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. STEM is the wave of the future! Students who study STEM subjects will be employed and make money! There are STEM charter schools and summer camps and I don’t know, probably action figures. But only a small percentage of future jobs will actually require a high level of knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and math -- 9.6% of net new jobs in the next ten years, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. (And that doesn't take into account job turnover -- at any given moment, there will be fewer job openings, because workers will already have those jobs.) Far more jobs are predicted that have to do with serving people: the top ten projected job categories currently are retail, food service, physical labor, cashier, secretary, driver, cleaning/janitorial, clerk, customer service, and lower-level health care. These are jobs that cannot be done well by a machine and that cannot be outsourced to Bangalore; they will be with us whatever the economy does in the future. If schools are in the business of preparing the future workforce, these are the jobs they should be working with.
This is a hard thing for guidance counselors and parents to hear, because the top ten projected jobs are the least glamorous and least remunerative in our current economic system. Parents and principals would far rather boast about kids becoming doctors or engineers than janitors or home health care aides. But the main issue here lies outside of education and squarely in the hands of the wider society: Why don’t these truly essential people, who care for us, feed us, clean up after us, and answer our questions, make a living wage? Why are they treated with disdain when plutocrats raking in money from selling harmful things to clueless people get all the respect? That’s a problem that schools can’t solve on their own.
Parents, too, direct what subjects are taught in schools. They also are ignorant about real workforce projections and, susceptible to the glamour of “smart” subjects, insist on calculus and AP biology for kids who don’t know which way is clockwise or how to alphabetize. Then there is the inevitable creep of bureaucratic systems. Schools keep adding new subjects to look smart and savvy – film-making, sports marketing, and investing, for example – but find it hard to take away old courses (often for good reason). So the requirements keep piling up, the day has to be longer, and students have to start learning these myriad subjects at younger and younger ages, just so there is time to fit them into the transcript.
A truly human-shaped education must begin with children and the world they will occupy and then move to a drastic rethinking and pruning of everything that is taught. A little fix of switching textbooks or adding electives won't be enough.