The Top 12 Things I Learned in School…and What It Means That There Are Only 12 Things on This List
We all had this moment at least once, if not many, many times, when we were in school. Moments when we thought, Why do I need to know this?
There were all sorts of justifications at the time if we bothered asking. Maybe we were learning something–or a variety of things–so we could know if we’d enjoy more intensive versions of those classes later. Maybe we were taking a class so we wouldn’t have to take it again at a higher level. We took history classes to give us “context” for future decisions. Math classes were there for critical thinking. English was there so we could learn how to create structured arguments.
Some of the logic is good, but so much of the way those subjects are taught have nothing to do with their future applications. For example, I judged an essay contest recently (one of the perks of being a publisher). Although structure and focus were problems with many of the essays, if any one of them had followed the standard 5-paragraph format that was beaten into us in middle school, it would have made for a terrible essay. It’s simply too rigid.
I’ve read a fair amount recently about how education is changing. You can learn anything on YouTube now. One major university recently offered two of their courses free online, prompting some futurists to claim that there would only be a few universities in the future. Some classrooms even use online tracking with individualized lesson customization based on each student’s abilities and progress.
However, in the midst of all that, students–particularly elementary through high school students–are still learning the same old stuff. The fundamentals are the same. Should they be?
I thought back up on the key things that I learned in school, and here’s what I came up with. It was startling to me that the list was so short:
- I learned how to learn.
- I learned how to read.
- I learned how to write.
- I learned how to make basic calculations instantly in my mind.
- I learned how to structure arguments.
- I learned how to take logical steps to an explainable solution.
- I learned how to type.
- I learned how to meet deadlines.
- I learned how to complete work that didn’t seem important to me.
- I learned how to work well with others.
- I learned how to speak a foreign language.
- I learned how to present things to people.
It’s somewhat amazing to me that the only item on that list that I use every day–how to type–wasn’t even an available class in middle school or high school. I had to go to summer school for that!
Also amazing about this list:
- So much of school is social. It only encompasses one item on this list, but I think back to my education at every level, and so much of what I learned is how to interact with many different types of people. I wouldn’t give up my education at any level solely because of the social aspect, and it makes me seriously wonder about what homeschooled kids are missing out on. I’ve heard that one of the counterarguments to that is that homeschooled kids can still learn social skills through neighborhood friends, extracurricular classes, and team sports, but I did all of those things, and I’d be way more awkward than I am today if those were the only ways I learned about people.
- That said, so many of the things on this list don’t require other people. My parents could have taught me the majority of those subjects, probably before I even hit puberty.
- Despite the shortness of this list, so many kids get through school without learning these things. Millions of American adults are illiterate. I would find that hard to believe if I had not participated in an after-school tutoring program called Each One Teach One in college. There were so many fifth graders who simply couldn’t read–they had never trained their brains to look at a group of letters and see a word, something you and I take for granted. Same with math–do you even need to think about what 8 x 4 is or what 27 minus 13 is? Nope. Those calculations are instantaneous because of the way we were taught them in elementary school.
- In fact, looking at this list, it seems that the most important slice of our education pie happens in elementary school. Aren’t there better ways to spend middle school and high school if 90% of what we really need ingrained in our minds is already there?
- One item I left off the list is a HUGE focus of education: How to memorize. I think the only type of memorization we need to do is for things like basic math where we need to rely on our brains for instant answers. For everything else, what’s the point? Why do we memorize chemistry charts and historical dates/names? Is that the best use of students’ time? People talk about the downsides to Google and Wikipedia, but the fact that we have so much information at our fingertips means that there’s very little value in memorizing it in the first place.
- Last, it amazes me that about half of the items on that list aren’t even taught well. I started studying Japanese in 7th grade, but I didn’t have a good teacher until college despite going to an excellent magnet high school (I actually taught 4th level Japanese when I was a senior in high school so that I could have some sort of challenge while the real teacher taught a different class in the same classroom at that time). I created hundreds of presentations during my primary and secondary education, but I received very little instruction beyond “speak slowly” and “make your slides visible.” Giving presentations is something that applies to almost every career–why is it not a major component of our education?
Now, I’m sure there are some elements of my education–both tangible and intangible–that I’m overlooking here. In fact, one of my favorite classes, creative writing (both in elementary school and college) isn’t even on this list. I don’t think I derived a huge amount of value from that class, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
That said, it seems to me that the majority of our education is a colossal waste of time and resources, especially since plenty of students graduate from high school having not learned those 12 items (or learned them well). I say that with all due respect to teachers. Just because I don’t see value in history class doesn’t mean that you’re not secondarily teaching many of the things on the list above.
But I think we can do better, a lot better. We shouldn’t treat primary education as day care, which is essentially what we’re doing if we’re teaching kids things that they don’t need to know. Beyond the 12 items on my list, here are a few things I think should be essential parts of primary school curricula:
- Every student should know how to program and design. I can’t think of a single career where knowing how to program wouldn’t help you. Even if you are a construction worker who never touches a computer at work, so many doors open up to you if you can create an app to help streamline the construction process or if you can even tweak an existing app. Programming is the most invaluable skill of the 21st century.
- Every student should starting studying a foreign language for the purpose of eventual fluency in elementary school. I remember taking a throwaway class on foreign languages in elementary school. An exotic woman came to our classroom once a week to teach us a few words and phrases in a half dozen different languages. There was no point to it except to show us that there are other countries out there where people speak differently. Literally she could have walked into the classroom on the first day and said, “Hey, I just want you all to know that there are other countries out there where people use different languages,” and that would have been a better use of our time. Why in the world did she not spend class time teaching us one language? Our pliable little brains would have soaked it up and been so much better at languages in high school and college.
- Every student should learn a trade. Not in trade school, in regular high school. This could be called a “fallback career course.” Every student picks a trade career–plumber, electrician, mechanic–and gets certified in that trade by the time they leave high school. That way if they ever lose their job or their professional basketball career doesn’t work out, they have a skill that will always be useful.
- Every student deserves a choice. I think that when students reach a certain age–perhaps even a very young age–they should be given choices about their education. Sure, we’re given some choice as early as middle school, but overall, about 80% of our education is set in stone, and the other 20% is flexible. I’d say that it should be more like 50/50. I’m not just talking about the subject matters–Japanese over French, AP Chem over AP Physics–I’m talking about the level of difficulty of the classes we take. For example, I went to one school for kindergarten and first grade, and then we moved. During my second-grade year at the new school, I tested into a gifted program at a different school that started at third grade. I would have loved to have gone to that school in third grade (school is really boring when you’re surrounded by imbeciles), but the guidance counselor said that uprooting me again after only a year at that school would have a negative effect on my well-being. Of course, 8-year-olds rarely know what’s best for themselves–that’s why we can’t get married at that age–but I should have been given a say in this matter. I think it’s different when a kid says, “I want more of a challenge–give me the more difficult option.” In fact, I think it means something when a kid chooses the easier option too. One more example of this: In middle school, the gifted program continued, but it was split into two classes, with the division based on math scores. I tested on the bubble, so the counselor put me in the easier of the two classes without seeking input for me. This had little impact at the time, because I was still with plenty of smart kids who were eager to learn. But when I got to high school, I was ready for more of a challenge. I wanted to take Algebra 2 right away, but because of what I had learned in middle school, I had to take Geometry first (the Algebra 2 kids pretty much skipped Geometry, or maybe they learned it in greatly truncated form). I went out of my way to request that I get bumped up to the more challenging class, but the guidance counselor said no. No explanation for the kid who again is asking for the more difficult course. Just no. So I sailed through Geometry, taught myself Algebra 2 in my free time (with some help from Sam P, who really should have become a math teacher), and caught up with the rest of the kids. That was all fine and dandy, but by the time I got to college, my foundation in math wasn’t quite what it should have been, and higher-level calculus was actually pretty hard for me by that point. (Although, why I was required to learn higher-level calculus at that point, I do not know.) My point is that kids deserve to have their input heard when it comes to the quality of their education. And that at least three guidance counselors out there are idiots.
I didn’t think this entry would get so long, but for those of you who made it this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Many of you who read this blog are my age, which means that you might start having kids soon, and I’m sure you want those kids to get the best education possible. What is important about education to you, and how are you going to get that for your kids? I’d also really like to hear the thoughts of educators. What am I missing here?