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:

  1. I learned how to learn.
  2. I learned how to read.
  3. I learned how to write.
  4. I learned how to make basic calculations instantly in my mind.
  5. I learned how to structure arguments.
  6. I learned how to take logical steps to an explainable solution.
  7. I learned how to type.
  8. I learned how to meet deadlines.
  9. I learned how to complete work that didn’t seem important to me.
  10. I learned how to work well with others.
  11. I learned how to speak a foreign language.
  12. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

62 thoughts on “The Top 12 Things I Learned in School…and What It Means That There Are Only 12 Things on This List”

            • Great! I look forward to specific reasons about how she can experience the full breadth of social challenges despite being homeschooled (or why those social challenges don’t matter, if she chooses to take that path). I’d love to see twins studies done on this topic–one kid is homeschooled and the other attends public school. See which one turns out more socially adept.

  1. Excellent points, Jamey. I lead creative writing workshops for kids from 10 – 18, as part of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s youth outreach. I’ve noticed that by the time kids are about 11, they seem programmed to seek the “correct” answer to any question. They seem confused, but ultimately excited, when I tell them I don’t yet have an expected answer to many of the questions I ask: I want them to think about the ideas we’re exploring and form opinions. Independent critical thinking is a skill every successful person needs, yet in classes with 30 students it’s tough to have discussions that foster that skill. Scientists, philosophers, engineers, inventors, and business leaders know that we learn most and innovate best when we have permission to make mistakes that lead to discovery. A few absolutes may help to organize education, but it’s also important to value “creative” or “new” answers as opposed to “perfect” or “expected” answers.

    • Cara–That’s really interesting that by such a young age, kids are programmed to find the correct answer, as if the world is black and white. Independent critical thinking is so key (as is, on some level, critical thinking in groups). Thanks for continuing to push those kids to think!

  2. Jamey,

    First of all the number one problem with educational policy today is that since everyone went to school, everyone thinks they know what goes on in schools. On the other hand, when you were a kid you probably went to the doctor and that doctor did an exam and recommended treatment/shots/etc. You may have taken his/her advice without really knowing much about how he/she came to that conclusion. Now 30 years later would you expect that he would go about all that in the exact same way? Probably not. You assume that med school keeps up with the changing times and changing technology and you trust your doctors and hope they save your life.

    However, in the last few years teachers have lost their professional status in the eyes of the public. Everyone thinks they know just as much without the education training. They assume that classrooms still look the way they did when they were in school. They don’t.

    I’m not going to go into everything that I think (or hope) I am teaching my kids. But I will say they are NOT learning to memorize dates/people/events in history. When a kid asks who someone was, or what a term means I tell them to get out their phone or jump on a computer and look it up. We talk about the great uses of Wikipedia and the negative ones. We discuss the problems of “hashtag activism” on twitter and how it is important to get all the information before jumping to conclusions. We talk about privacy laws for teens and how to make sure they aren’t doing things that will haunt them later. We research what happened during the French Revolution and compare it to the Egyptian Revolution…we look at why the French needed a strong leader and why that need may be absent in today’s revolution because of technology. They then look at how to use the resources they have to enact change in their community. Recently when studying World War I they wrote proposals in groups for how to avoid World War in the future. You can see those here— They didn’t memorize anything for this project, but used resources that were available. Then they had to defend it to the class. This was their assessment. The website that those are located on is put together by one of my students who decided that he wanted to focus on learning how to do that instead of doing some other types of projects….demonstrating the choice that you mention.

    I would be the last person to say any of this is perfect. But I will say that teachers are professionals, and the majority of us keep up on the research that is done on what benefits kids and how kids learn. We do our best to implement it every day.

    The biggest barrier that teachers have to overcome in order to do this is the state/national testing. These tests are backwards. They are full of memorizing facts that are not important for students to know. Our teaching is judged on them and in some states teacher’s salary is judged on them. They allow no room for a kid who wants to demonstrate what he/she is learning through a website, or through discussion, or a movie. It is strictly memorization. These tests are what need to change in order to keep up with what teachers are already doing in their classroom.
    Anyway, that’s my two cents.

    • Indeed, I believe teachers are treated with decreasing respect, and this is a huge problem. As is the growing tendency to measure their performance be a set of standardized tests that can’t possibly measure everything kids are learning or everything teachers are teaching. As is the fact that class sizes continue to be too large. As is the fact that teachers are paid as if they were overqualified babysitters, when they’re dedicated professionals. I meet excellent teachers every time I walk into local schools, and I’m confident that teachers are not responsible for the deficits in our education system. Teachers have become convenient scapegoats for much more complex bureaucratic, financial, and political problems.

      • Cara–Great points. And again, as I noted in my response to Maddy, I am not criticizing teachers in this blog entry. I’m criticizing the system. I’m sure there’s a vast range of teachers with different abilities, so I don’t want to overgeneralize with them. I was fortunate to have many great teachers in my day–even the Japanese teachers I criticized had the best of intentions.

        • I didn’t get the impression that you were criticizing teachers, Jamey. 🙂 I just wanted to pass on a little solidarity to Maddy, because I know teachers are really under fire these days.

          • Cara–Definitely. I just wanted to reiterate it just in case people didn’t read my long response to Maddy. 🙂 Thanks so much for your thoughts!

    • Maddy–Thanks for sharing. I hope my post conveyed that it’s the system that I’m criticizing, not the teachers. And you’re right, it’s been a while since I’ve been in school (thanks for the reminder about how old I am! 🙂 ), hence why I didn’t comment on the SOLs. I’ve read about the current version of them and talked to teachers about them, but they seemed like an afterthought at the schools I attended, so I don’t have much firsthand experience with them.

      That said, you illustrate my point perfectly: You are teaching kids #5 and #6 on my list (among others, although I think you’ve told me that many of your kids simply won’t do homework, which probably doesn’t bode well for them in terms of learning #8 and #9). You try every day to overcome the restrictions the system places on you to teach kids things that matter.

      Although, I would ask you this–when I came up with that list, I boiled it down to the core fundamentals that kids really need to know for the long haul. 20 years from now, none of your students are going to remember the lesson about the French and Egyptian Revolutions. But if you’ve done your job, they will know how to compare two seemingly unrelated things and learn from the comparison. Does it really take 12 years of history classes to get teach those fundamentals? How much is too much? What is the right amount?

  3. The nature of your post is one of reflection so I appreciate your honest thoughts and concern for education. Here are a couple things you might consider looking into for furthering your thinking:

    1. Most of the changes you call for in education relate to the “grammar of schooling,” or the way things are done or what is considered a “normal” or “real” school. Reform and policy researchers such as Tyack and Cuban have discovered that reforms seeking to change the “grammar of schooling” is the hardest reform to enact and sustain over time, mostly because contingents of all stakeholders have a difficult time embracing these ideas and changes. I could go into more detail but I perhaps this isn’t the forum for a research review.

    2. You mention various personal and general experiences of education. I appreciate your consideration that education is more than test scores and achievement data. However, I urge you go a step further and look at the social implications played out in education. School is not the only place where gaps exist in our society. With that said, addressing the varying needs of students is possible and essential. However, we must also be honest about who sets standards and expectations in education. Acknowledging the existing power cultures that exist and permeate our education (and other institutions) is essential in the conversation about school reform and progress.

    3. Some of your assertions are supported in research, however the process of implementation reveals more complex and contextual variables than are first identified. Possibilites for change are the greatest on small levels that can then be scaled-up appropriately. This is counter to the current top-down trend of late, but part of education is working with the reality that efforts for change are constant and do not occur in isolation of other efforts. I am glad people care and participate in the conversation. It’s a conversation that must be had, but the greatest impact happens at the classroom level. If we want to see some of these changes then support them(continue to volunteer and contribute in any capacity possible) in your local schools. Not only will you have the greatest impact, but you will also build new knowledge, skills, and experiences that will contribute to your current understandings and future advocacy. You may be surprised by how much is accomplished each day that we never realized as students.

    I’d love to share more about the my thoughts, but I am too long-winded as it is. Thanks for asking good questions! Hope all is well!

    • Wendy–Thanks for sharing your perspective. I can particularly appreciate the idea that the odds of sweeping changes happening are very slim, but individual teachers can make a huge difference. I would go as far to say that a single teacher could make a permanent difference on a kid for almost all of the 12 items I list above.

  4. Jamey, good topic and great points! I find this fascinating and have a few comments of my own:

    1) The “fallback career course” should arguably just be called “life skills” because not only do many people need to know those trade-like skills, I personally think way more people need to be choosing them as a career path. We can’t all have bachelor’s degrees and desk jobs (guilty) and expect our economy to survive that!

    2) I think one thing I would add to my list is that I learned how to get to know a teacher, determine what they want, and adapt my results to match their desires. This is essentially the same skill that I used to apply to college, scholarships, jobs, and now use daily with clients. Being able to quickly understand what someone values and what they expect of you (clarifying when needed) so as to deliver an accurate or desirable result is why I was good at school. (I was intelligent, but I think being good at school is a skill, and this specific thing was a large part of my success.)

    3) As a product of a pretty run-of-the-mill public school where I was one of the higher-achievers, I also learned to lead. For group projects, my conscientiousness and drive made me a natural leader and I ended up being the one to make sure things got done, put things together, etc. Had I been in a competitive environment in a more high-functioning school, I may have gained in MANY other ways, but I may not have developed leadership skills like patience, tactfulness, leading by example and multi-tasking. I think the leadership skills and confidence boost that came from being the top of my class ultimately benefited me more than having a more grueling and thorough education (although clearly there is no way of knowing).

    • Emma–Thanks for your thoughts. I really like the idea of the fallback career course going beyond trades–that was just the first thing I thought of (especially since many people in my generation don’t know how any machines work).

      “How to get to know a teacher, determine what they want, and adapt my results to match their desires.” At first I thought that’s limited to academia, but you defend it well–I can see that being an extremely useful skill set with future bosses, clients, and customers.

      As for leadership, definitely. That should have been on my list–although it’s a component of working well with others, I think it’s worth differentiating between being an equal member of a group and stepping up to lead or coordinate a project. I’ve found that leadership skills also come through in recreational sports.

  5. Oh Jamie,

    You are assuming that every child has a childhood like the one you had.

    “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.”

    What if you don’t have parents?

    What if you grow up in your grandmother’s household because your dad is in prison and your mom’s addicted to drugs? Or are in the Foster Care system? Or get passed from house to house every couple of months because no one in your ‘family’ wants legal guardianship of you?

    According to the 2004 census – only 38% of African-American children live with two biological parents. 1.6 million U.S. children live with one grandparent and have no parent present. More statistics available here:
    2004 Census Summary

    What if you have parents, but they’re not educated? Maybe your mom was 14 when she had you and never made it past 9th grade – do you think she’s going to be able to teach you to not only make sense of the letters on the page, but also to analyze when an author is trying to persuade you to a particular viewpoint rather than just provide you with facts?

    According to the 2012 census, there were almost three times as many high school graduated mothers who participated in home literacy activities (read a story, tell a story, teach numbers/letters, etc…) with their 3-5 years olds than mothers who did not graduate from high school. More statistics available here:
    2012 Summary Regarding Home Literacy

    What if you have a parent or even parents, but they have to work three or four jobs in order to provide for you and your siblings, so you never really see them and are instead being raised by an older sibling, an aunt, or a grandparent (any of which might have their own children or jobs to occupy them) – do you think they’re going to have enough time or education to teach you the mental math short cuts so that when you’re trying to figure out how much your grocery bill is going to be and whether or not you have enough money, you don’t make a mistake?

    I’m not saying that it’s wrong to examine what’s being taught in school, but your post really fails to consider the possibility that your view of what should or should not be taught in school is based on your own upbringing (and assuming that it’s the same as everyone else’s, or that if it’s not, that your upbringing is the ‘correct’ one) and your own cultural, socio-economic, religious, gender, and educational biases.

    I don’t see anywhere in your post a mention of art, athletics, financial literacy, music, dance, theatre, cultural competency, civics, or life skills (writing and delivering a speech, writing a resume, going to an interview, writing a memo), let alone the complicated nature of some of your ’12 things’.

    “I learned how to read” – what a statement … unpack that a bit, shouldn’t it have looked a little more like this …

    I learned how to read for pleasure.
    I learned how to read for information.
    I learned how to read and identify literary genres.
    I learned how to identify and analyze literary devices and figurative language.
    (which could be unpacked further to read “I learned how to identify onomatopoeia, metaphor, simile, alliteration, analogy, deus ex machina, etc…etc…etc…)
    I learned how to read and identify voice and tone.
    I learned how to read and identify bias.
    I learned how to read and identify an author’s purpose and audience.
    I learned how to read and identify an author’s main points and supporting details.
    I learned how to read and paraphrase.
    I learned how to read and identify cause and effect.
    I learned how to read and identify setting, characters, problems and solutions, climax, denouement, and a variety of other aspects of the text.
    I learned how to read and distinguish between connotation and denotation.
    I learned how to read and summarize what I have read.
    I learned how to criticize/analyze/be critical of what I have read.
    Make predictions, draw conclusions, make text-to-self connections, make text-to-world connections, make inferences, compare, etc… etc… etc… ad infinitum.

    To simply say “I learned how to read” is a gross simplification of the years long process of becoming a good reader and trivializes the amount of work that goes into teaching someone to read well – either for pleasure or information.

    I’ve tried typing out all of my thoughts about what you’ve written, but none of them are succinct enough to subject others to them, so I’m sending you an e-mail with all of my thoughts in the jumbled, somewhat stream-of-consciousness state.

    Sufficed to say – I think you’ve missed a lot here.

    • Christine–I definitely appreciate your perspective. I almost put a disclaimer at the beginning of the post stating that what I wrote is from my experience, but honestly, I think that’s kind of obvious. Of course I can’t speak for everyone. Education is deeply personal, hence the deeply personal examples I gave above (and the title: “The Top 12 Things I Learned in School”…not “The Top 12 Things That I’m Assuming Everyone Learned in School”).

      That said, there are generalizations in this post, and as Maddy pointed out, I’ve been removed from school for a while.

      You honed in on the bullet point about parents, which wasn’t really about parents at all. Here’s the bold part again: “That said, so many of the things on this list don’t require other people.” It was an observation that was meant to conjure the idea that maybe we need to rethink the purpose of the “classroom.” Why do we keep putting 20-30 kids in a class to learn the same exact thing when each one has their own pace or style? It seems antiquated to do that for every class…for some classes, sure, but every class?

      As for all the examples you gave about reading, sure, “I learned how to read” goes deeper than just “I learned how to group letters into words with my mind.” But I intentionally didn’t unpack it further because I don’t think the vast majority of the things you mentioned are things that I would consider “core essentials” that I learned in school. You listed this like “I learned how to identify and analyze literary devices and figurative language.” Do you really believe that’s an indispensable skill you learned in school, or were you just trying to make a long, impressive sounding list?

      • Jamey, you’re working on a novel. How can learning to “identify and analyze literary devices and figurative language” not be an indispensable skill? The point isn’t that every single student needs to learn a skill such as this in order to make a living. The point is that every single student deserves to have a diverse enough foundation of knowledge and skills to even figure out if they ever *want* to write a novel or not.

        • Aaron–But is that one-size-fits-all approach the best way to go? I agree that some degree of the liberal arts education works. But I think what happens more often than not is what I described above about the foreign language “class” I had when I was in elementary school. If we had focused on one language instead of six, we might have actually learned something that we could apply in the long run. Instead we got a watered-down version that gave us no long-term function.

          Let’s apply this to you. You teach music, correct? Does every student learn every instrument? Or do students focus on one specific instrument? I honestly don’t know the answer, but either way, which one is better for the students in your opinion?

          • Well, I can apply it to my teaching, but the two subjects aren’t quite analogous. (Reading is the foundation of everything, including music.) Every student doesn’t learn every instrument, but every elementary student does take music. (In districts that still have music, that is…)

            Anyway, when students are in general music, they learn the building blocks of music, including exposure to a few simple instruments (i.e., percussion, keyboards, recorders, etc.). Which lets them make an informed decision when they’re older as to what instrument(s) they might want to explore further.

            • Interesting. So you see your role as one of giving students a foundation from which they can make informed choices later in their education?

  6. Emma mentioned something that struck me among your 12 things as well. She commented on trades, fallback careers, and life skills. The life skills portion jumped out at me immediately when I read your intial entry. So many people who can do amazing things with a computer cannot change a car’s headlight bulb. You and I both learned that this is incredibly easy and much cheaper than using a mechanic. There are so many things like this that I have learned in the past couple of years either out of curiosity or necessity (who knew that not draining lawn mower gasoline before winter would cause problems in the spring?) that were HUGE misses in school. Nearly 10 out of 10 high schoolers would benefit more from a class on basic car maintenance than they would from AP Physics. I haven’t referenced my notes from that class once since it ended, but I sure would have referenced a vehicle maintenance checklist each year if life skills had been part of high school. In fact, I think each student should be given a cursory knowledge of plumbing, electrical work, HVAC, cooking, personal financial management, etc–and not just as a fallback career. I’d argue that these are legitimate career options for people, not just those who don’t succeed in other areas, and that the way many of us react to taking typing skills in school (often saying that it’s the most useful class we’ve ever taken) would apply to these life skills courses for many people.

    • Trev–That’s a great point. I wonder if Home Economics should expand (or maybe it has already expanded) to include those areas.

      • It’s funny that you mention Home Ec. As I wrote my original comment, I almost added “sewing,” which made me think of Home Economics (harkening back to a stuffed eagle I once sewed in 7th grade). Isn’t the term “Home Economics” odd for what that class actually entailed? Where were the economics? In my ideal version of Home Economics, there would be some budgeting lessons, not just sewing stuffed eagles.

        Also interesting (and perhaps untrue everywhere), my middle school got rid of Home Ec as I knew it years after I left and stopped teaching the cooking and sewing aspects of life altogether.

        • I think Home Ec is a good place to teach budgeting lessons in addition to all of those other things. The importance of sewing stuffed eagles should not be undervalued.

    • Trev (can I call you Trev like Jamey does even though we don’t know each other?),

      I think this sort of gets at the point Jamey was making about parents (and perhaps backs up Christine’s comment about the differences in home life for students). My father taught me how to change the oil, replace a head light, change a flat etc. However, I think a “Basic Auto Maintenance” and “Cooking Essentials” class would be useful in most high schools.

    • I completely agree. If there is a night school that offers a basic class in any of those things just for an average person to understand, I’d definitely take it. There so much with home and car maintenance that people like me just learn through trial and error. One of the best classes I took in college was a Personal Finance class my senior year. I took it pass/fail while doing my thesis not because I needed the credit, just because I wanted the knowledge and it had been invaluable to me already.

    • There are so many good points and idea already on here, so I feel like I’m not contributing much, especially as I’m not and have not been an educator and am not a parent, but the idea of schools teaching valuable life skills and fallback careers is a point that stuck out to me.

      One of the few lessons from grade school math (in the public school I attended) was how to balance a checkbook, and create a budget. I think I was in 6th grade at the time, and to this day, remember that more than the calculus class as a senior in high school. Most people I know think that my continuing to manually balance my checking account is silly, especially since online banking is so readily available, and maybe they are right, but it has come in handy a few times when I have found a discrepancy with multiple charges on my statement. My bank was happy to research it and correct the issue.

      My personal experience with schools teaching some basic “life skills” isn’t too advanced, but in middle school they had a system where the class subject would change every few weeks/months. Art, music, home economics, computer lab, and industrial arts were taught to each student for a short time- depending on grade level. I like the idea of schools focusing more on teaching “life skills,” as I was taught the basics of wiring a circuit, how to operate power saws, minor drafting skills, and how to sew/cook, but the classes were for such a short period it was hard to really learn anything more than surface skills in that environment.

      In my high school, I remember in addition to the “standard” classes (English, Math, History, Sciences, etc.) they did offer several trade specific classes, such as machine shop, welding, typing, and various home economics- designed for students who knew they did not/would not go on to college. Also, as part of one of the home economics, they must have focused on family preparedness/child-raising, as I remember seeing people walking around the school with life-like babies and would see them taking care of the doll as if it were a real child. Unfortunately, no one in my classes or group of friends took those classes, so I never really knew what the assignment was, but I’m sure the intention was teaching how much work taking care of children would be.

      As far as home-schooling goes, I went to church with several kids home-schooled, and they seemed just as well adjusted as myself and the others in our age group. I think in situations where the local school system has a reputation for being subpar, it is a valid alternative to paying for a private school, or sending a child to a school where they will not be provided with the type of education they should be able to receive.

      • Katy–Thanks for your comment. That’s a great point about your checkbook. You learned something that was applicable to daily life, and because of that, it stuck with you. Why isn’t more math based on what you might actually use on a regular basis?

        We had similar industrial arts at my middle and high school, just little elective classes here and there, but we didn’t learn anything that we could use in the long run (aside from shop safety, which is quite important). I just wonder if all of these little classes where you get a “taste” of something are far less useful than if you pick a subject (whether it’s a language, an instrument, or a trade) and truly learn it so you can actually use it. I’d contend that even for people like you and me who thought we’d never need trade skills, taking one class like that could be useful for the rest of our lives. But because I had a potpouri of home ec and industrial arts, I know the teensiest bit about a lot of things instead of real, applicable knowledge about one thing.

  7. Oh, my. Everyone’s comments are so thorough and insightful, I don’t know what I could possibly add! Except that I think the social aspect of school is hugely important, which you said. And that education is, slowly but surely, catching up. The school I work at is making a big effort to bring more technology into the classroom and, for next year, the focus is much more on hands-on projects, problem solving, presentations, etc. especially in group settings, so that kids learn to work with others.

    As I told them before their most recent group project, “You’ll be working with people for the rest of your life. Might as well get used to it.” Heh.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Anne. I agree that the social aspect of school is really important (hence I’m really interested to read the homeschooler’s response).

  8. By the way, I know this is off topic, but how on earth do people who comment on this blog still misspell your first name despite the fact that it’s part of the website address and shows up all over any given webpage?

    On a tangentially related topic (tangential to the blog post), why don’t more business schools offer a class called some derivation of “Starting a Business”? Seems rather odd to me.

    • To your first question…I don’t know. That should be a skill that people learned in school: How to spell someone’s name correctly if it’s right in front of you.

      My business school had something close to that, but I honestly think it should be the first class you take when you get to b-school, not an afterthought. You only realize what you don’t know until you enter a practical situation where you don’t know it.

  9. Jamey,

    There is so much here that I would like to dig into (esp. the teacher/licensure/difference in school environment debate going on the comments section). Perhaps I will add some thoughts on that topic later. However, I would like to address the homeschooling issue since I was homeschooled from K-8.

    Initial caveat: home-schooling is hetergenous. Just as there are differences between Mary Institute and Country Day School and Riverview Gardens Senior High there will be difference in each home schoolers experience/education.

    Sociability: I will freely admit that I wasn’t the most socially adept when I returned to public school. However, this was primarily because I didn’t know that you had to wear a specific brand of jeans to be cool and my parents had failed to provide me with a comprehensive list of slang sexual terms that are important for any teenager to know. This is not to provide the impression that it was just me, my brother, and mother hanging out at the kitchen table learning phonetics for 8 years. We were actively involved in a group of ~100 homeschooling families in our area. I knew how to interact with kids my own age. I just didn’t know how to interact with kids my age that cursed constantly, hated their teachers, and didn’t care about producing quality work.

    My parents taught me how to do everything else on your list (minus the foreign language) and as I result, I knew how to “learn” and it only took me ~1.5 years to figure out how to fit in at public school. I would argue that if you are homeschooled and learn how to do everything on your list you can adapt to any situation and you will be far better prepared for the “real world” than the student who is voted “most popular” but is unable to think critically and able to solve problems without constant oversight.

    Finally, a shout out to the few teachers that didn’t waste my time in school: The chemistry teacher who forced us to design dynamic Excel Spreadsheets, the economics teacher who forced us to use powerpoint for all presentations, the english teacher who told me to stop using platitudes and write something original and thoughtful, the math teacher who told our class that we could do anything we wanted if we could solve derivatives.

    • Imposter Josh–Thanks for your well-reasoned response. This is really interesting stuff. First, about the home schooling, I definitely overlooked the part about homeschooling communities. I had heard about that before, but I hadn’t thought about that as I was writing the post.

      Second, I’m particularly curious about this since you were both home schooled and went to “normal” high school: Are you glad you had both experiences before heading to college? Or do you think you would have been better off sticking with homeschooling through high school, or decreasing the time you spent in home school? It sounds like balance might be key, so where is that balance?

      Third, your last paragraph is awesome. It both reflects on the feeling I had while writing this post that a decent chunk of my time was “wasted” in school, while at the same time zeroing in on skills that you learned in school that you continue to use to this day. The platitudes fits under my “learn how to write” category, but it’s a great specific example that really is more under a “learn to write WELL” category. The spreadsheets and PowerPoint points are excellent too.

      • I am fortunate that I had both experiences. While I’m sure that I didn’t learn as much in public high school as I would have if I had stayed homeschooled I believe that I had a strong enough foundation in grammar, math, history etc. that it probably didn’t make a material difference in my eventual “life success”. However, public school offered the opportunities of varsity sports, and competitive debate/forensics which are memories/experiences that I cherish.

        Additionally, I think the whole college application process is much smoother/easier when you come from a public school. There are basic assumptions that accompany a public school diploma. People don’t feel the need to perform “quality control”. Even if you have killer SAT and AP scores the majority of the population is still inherently suspicious of individuals that have “graduated” from homeschool.

        I think the best “balance” between public and home school is intensely personal. I find it ironic that the people are very excited about “individualized” medicine, but are abhorred by the thought of “individualized” education. [Caveat: some parents are not equipped to teach higher level courses. Although I suppose the same could be said for some licensed teachers.]

        • Imposter Josh–Thanks for your perspective on that, and that’s a great point that the balance highly depends on the person (and his/her parents’ teaching abilities). I’m awaiting John’s daughter’s response (she’s a 10-year-old who is currently being homeschooled).

  10. I’m in my 70’s and abided by Jamey’s request for contemporaries’ ideas, so I could learn from all of you. You are amazing. I particularly related to Emma and imaginative Christine even though she can’t spell Jamey’s name. I’d love to be taught by her!

    I’m a product of 4 Catholic gradeschools (so I learned to adapt) and learned every bit of English Grammar I know from an “old school” 6th grade teacher and developed a dislike for Math in 4th grade when Sr. Harriet Joseph insisted I take the only F paper I ever received home to be signed by my Dad. So long Math!

    High school was spent in a girl’s Catholic private academy where I was subjected to Tolstoy at 13 yrs. in Impact courses and took 4 years of Latin and 2 yrs. French and spent all 4 years arguing with an incredible teacher in various Social Studies courses–to both of our delight.

    I attended 2 women’s Catholic Universities concentrating (despite Tolstoy) in English, Education, minoring in French and Theology.
    Although it was called a Liberal Education at the time, everyone was the same gender, socio-economic level and religion. I didn’t repeat that model with my own children.

    For me, logic was learned at the dinner table from a self-educated father who expected dinner discussions and allowed opinions only backed up with specifics and reason. I’m still attending seminars, auditing classes.
    I taught English at 2 Catholic academies 50 years ago and was rewarded just recently when I encountered 2 former students who remembered me and said I was recalled with respect at both schools. Frankly, I was a skillful teacher.

    Because I preferred the challenge of competing with contemporaries and determined the teachers I worked with were coasting in their classes, I left teaching. My $3600 salary may have influenced me also. (Yeah, really!) I never was exposed to a practical course other than typing and yet managed to become a wife, mother, decent (not gourmet) cook and worked outside the home continuously until I was 69.

    I was taught by my father (a consummate salesman and entrepreneur) that Selling was a profession that propelled the world economy. Teaching is selling–persuading others to learn. Someone sold you that device that is taking us away from face-to-face interaction.

    I owned 2 retail carpet stores for 10 years, managed a design division of a large carpet group and eventually wound up being Director of National Accounts or a Carpet Manufacturer traveling the U.S. and teaching younger people how to do what I intuitively learned. Along the way I picked up enough computereze to get by in my work–all on a seemingly non-practical education.

    Incidentally there was a correlation between computer skills and lack of memory in all the personnel I mentored. Several couldn’t remember the name of the client they were calling on or how to find the location without their hand held devices and gave the most boring power point presentations i.e. reading the material like the buyer was learning disabled. I thought schooling was supposed to lead you to the place where you can educate yourself. I learned more teaching others, than I ever did in a classroom. School should just be a Gateway to living.

    • Ruth–Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate the slightly more “experienced” perspective than what I can offer.

  11. I think home schooling is a terrific option. If I had children of my own and could find a way to make it work, I’d probably give it a shot. However, when it comes to socialization, I think a YouTube video from 1997 exemplifies both the positives and negatives that you’re discussing here. A home-schooled girl won the National Spelling Bee by spelling to the beat of her own drum. Her unusual approach to coping with the nerve-wracking contest were simultaneously charming, bizarre, and hilarious. She did win, but how is she doing as an adult? Probably great, but I’d be curious to know.

  12. I agree with the basic premise of what you’re saying, but at the same time, where would you be without some of the basic knowledge that you learned in school? Like understand the basic elements of chemistry – we understand much more complex ideas (like how global warming might be occurring) because we already have that basis of knowledge. I think you might be taking some of that for granted. Do you need to understand wave forms? No, probably not unless you end up going into engineering or physics. On the flip side of that though, how do you know if you want to go into those fields unless you learn about some of those things originally?

    I’m playing a little devil’s advocate here, because I do agree with many of your points, I just hate overlook the fact many of the things that seemed and may still seem irrelevant in education do have an important role in the general education of the population. How do you think our latest economic crisis might have been different if no one ever learned about the Great Depression in history class? It may not be something you use day to day, but many of the topics are still very relevant to life in general.

    I do agree that we should focus on more of the things that you described, but what do you cut to make the time? There’s plenty of fat, but it’s dependent on the school and schools and their politics often have trouble seeing their own wasted areas.

    *On a different note, have you checked out the Kahn Acadamy? Rafael has been getting really interested in free online education and took a couple classes from Standford and a former Stanford prof’s new online education start up and from Kahn. Anyway, Kahn does 10 minute videos on just about anything you might want to learn about via YouTube and his site. He’s now partnering with schools to make education work better. Look into if you haven’t already. Pretty fascinating stuff. I’m one of those who thinks education is in for a big overhaul in the near future*

    • Christine–Thanks for the comment. You’re right–I can never know the subjects from my primary and secondary education have proven to be helpful on some level and the ones that have proven completely useless. The best I can do is make an educated guess. While I think the fundamentals of a wide range of subjects might be helpful in the long run (especially since kids don’t know what their future careers will be when they’re in elementary, middle, or even high school), I think I would redefine what the school system deemed “fundamental” at the time. Like you said, do I need to understand wave forms? No. Rudimentary physics? Sure. Give me a four-week course on that and let’s move on.

      The tough part is where to draw the line between foundations and more advanced studies. It’s somewhat shocking to me that this carries over to collegiate-level education. By that point, the “core” courses shouldn’t even exist. You might not know your career, but if you’re not learning something to apply towards specific careers at that point, it’s just a waste of time.

      I love Khan Academy. I didn’t write about it here because I’m not really sure how schools are are using it at this point. But I think it certainly is a hint at what education will look like in the future.

      • Well now we get into the debate of breadth of education vs depth of education – both have pros and cons. I lean on the side of breadth since I think makes a person a more well rounded citizen capable of understanding complexities and grey areas in a better way. There is an argument for plowing forward on depth however. This is the argument about whether a liberal arts education is really necessary or whether it’s time wasted that could be spent getting a deeper education.

        At what point do you draw that line though? High school? How many kids did you know if college who still had no idea what they wanted to do by the time they were declaring their majors? How many thought they knew exactly what they wanted to do only to find out that really wasn’t it. How many kids have you known who went down a specific path because of pressure from their parents towards a certain career? I’ve known plenty of people in all three categories.

        You’re also ignoring people like my brother and I, who would’ve stayed permanent students learning all sorts of different things if we’d had the luxury. I couldn’t get enough of different courses in college.

        I see primary and secondary education as a time for exploration and broad based learning. I do think we should broaden that learning to include basic life skills and topics like basic economics and personal finance, but I would hate to see kids funneled into a specific career while they’re still in their teens. There’s enough of that at the college level. Let kids open their brains up and explore. That’s what I see education offering at it’s best – curiosity, imagination and learning just for fun.

        • That is the question, isn’t it: Where DO you draw the line? And when do you draw it? And how much choice can you give individual students when it comes to drawing that line?

          One thing I do want to point out is that I don’t want to underestimate the importance of the arts. Let’s give kids MORE time to let their creativity flourish. I would have loved to take creative writing every year of my life, and I would have gladly sacrificed AP Chem to make that happen.

          I actually wish I had done a lot more “learning just for fun” in college (well, a mix of that and practical learning). But that’s on me–no one forced me to go to business school (although once I was there, I was forced to take a lot of classes that I had absolutely no interest in). I’d do college very differently if I could do it again.

  13. Having students who actually use Khan (not Kahn) Academy regularly for math practice, I can provide some feedback on its use …

    The videos are great for students who have already been exposed to a topic and need a refresher (i.e. the 11th grader who has forgotten some of the rules regarding fractions and needs to ‘brush up’ for the ACT) or who are still struggling with a topic (i.e. for the sixth grader who’s already been taught and retaught multiplying fractions, but still doesn’t grasp it).

    I have not see experiential evidence of the videos helping students who do not know the topic previously, in particular students who come to our school missing key math skills — we have tried using Khan Academy as another form of personalized attention (we already use the Accelerated Math system which provides customized math practice for students), but have not found success with it as the videos are not interactive — students cannot ask the video to explain it a different way, there are no manipulatives, and while students can play segments of the video over and over again if they still have questions they still have to seek out a living, breathing adult.

    The practice modules are highly effective and are a great tool to help a student’s non-primary teacher (i.e. a tutor, teaching assistant, resource room teacher, counselor, parent, study buddy, etc…) assess whether a student has truly mastered the topic.

    Kahn Academy, like many technological ‘tools,’ is an effective supplement to regular classroom instruction, but not a substitute for it.

  14. I love this entry. Well done, Jamey.

    The most important thing you mentioned, to me, is the reason I love Aidan’s school so much: every student deserves a choice.

    I believe that even at A’s level (1st grade). His classroom is made up of 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders. His education is individualized so that spelling, math, reading, etc are neither boring nor too challenging. For him, that means he usually reads at a 3rd – 4th grade level, but is more at the 1st grade level for math.

    Each week for his spelling words, his teacher presents him with a list. He goes through and tells her if it is too hard, or too easy. This process is the same for each child – students often go through 3 lists to get to just the right challenge level each week.

    Another choice I love is the structure of his day. Some things are set in stone – Spanish, Music, Art, etc. But he receives an individualized card with several works he must complete by day’s end. He can complete them in any order he wants, and if he has questions he can go to his teacher or 3rd grade mentor. I love how this teaches him to take responsibility, manage time and general awareness of what subjects he favors.

    Perhaps it is because I doubt my own ability to homeschool Aidan, but I truly believe the social aspect of schooling plays a big role for him. For me, I’ve often learned about myself through the way I interact with others. This is particularly true if it is “forced” interaction. I’ve learned what makes me nervous, when I feel most confident, how to react when I am put on the spot, how to stand up for myself, how to stand up for others, how to make choices involving people, what my internal consequences are for acting in a way that clashes with my beliefs, how to persuasively argue…the list goes on! I don’t believe I would have learned all of that without the social aspect, and sometimes discomfort, of public schooling.

    I could go on with this response, but it’s getting quite long! Thanks for writing such a thought-provoking entry.

    • Penelope–I’m so glad you posted; this was fascinating to read. I love the idea that each child at your son’s school can communicate to the teacher what is easy or hard for them, and they can learn at that pace instead of the one-size-fits-all approach. And yet at the same time they’re all together in the same classroom, interacting with one another and learning from those interactions.

      That’s also really unique that Aidan can choose the order in which he completes various tasks throughout the day. Is there any lecture-style teaching outside of Spanish, Music, and Art? Like, if he’s learning the multiplication tables and he chooses to complete that task in the afternoon, but other students choose the morning, does the teacher explain how the math works to both groups?

      • Great question! As I understand it, students are grouped together for lecture, based on ability. So when a group of students (regardless of grade) are being introduced to a new topic, say multiplication, they will receive a lecture. After they’ve received the lecture with their group, these types of works will show up on their card.

        I have to imagine this is quite a bit of work for the teacher, but observing his class is amazing. Everyone seems to be learning at their peak. Another thing to note is that sometimes everyone will receive an introductory lecture on a subject – reptiles, for example. But the subsequent “works” that are assigned vary, based on that student’s abilities. His school focuses more on teaching kids to love learning, than the specific content (like memorizing types of reptiles). I think that’s pretty brilliant!

        • Thanks for the explanation. That sounds like a truly fantastic way to learn. “Teaching kids to love learning.” Brilliant indeed. I hope there are similar options for Aidan as he moves forward to middle and high school!

  15. It’s taken me 2 days to read the blog all 56 comments. And here’s what I got.

    First off, Love Emma’s addition of understanding Teachers’ Expectations. I would absolutely add that to any list of applicable skills that I developed during my education. Also, I’d add an understanding of cause and effect to the list, which I think is taught using scientific method on the physical world in schooling to your list, as evidenced by the affect of the scientific method on the European Renaissance.

    As for all the questions of variation, education in this country tries to take people (children) of varying abilities, of varying interests from varying personal backgrounds, and tries to level the playing field by using testing to prove that everyone possesses a baseline of data. Jamey, you (in my opinion) have appropriately shifted the focus from the data retained to the study of attaining that information (as you put it, learning how to learn). It’s the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching how to fish. Notice, every one of the items you listed that you learned are phrased “I learned HOW” rather than “I learned THAT”.

    Finally, the idea of outcome was totally lost on me as a child. I did well in school because I was capable and because I had support at home. It is a fact that life after high school was a black hole to me at the time. I understood that going to college was the next step, but had no idea of the differences in experiences that different college environments could provide, or the impacts that they could have on my future as a contributor to society. As a comedic fact, the week before College Graduation, I received an email saying anyone who had college loans had to go to some seminar. I had to call my mother to find out whether I had such loans.

    Along the same vein (I never quite figured the right application of that phrase), I think, like most adults now, I have never had much idea of “What do I want to do when I grow up?” I think I’m stuck a consuming rather than producing mindset, and don’t know how much my development impacted that.

    • Red–Thanks for your response (and for taking the time to read everything!). That’s a keen observation about “I learned how” rather than “that.”

      I completely agree that most people don’t know what they want after high school (and those who do probably don’t have a good grasp for what those jobs entail. I’m sure there are plenty of people who aspire to be a “doctor” after watching Grey’s Anatomy, but they don’t really know how hard it is to be a doctor or a teacher or a lawyer).

      I keep coming back to where we draw the line, though. I took calculus in high school and was excited to do so at the time. And then I was required to take two more semesters of it in college even though by that point I knew that I’d never use calculus. There are so few professions where you need to know upper-level math like that. So instead of making that a part of the general high school and business school curriculum, why not limit it to those who choose to actively pursue careers that require calculus? Sure, that might not be until your third year of college, but that’s not too late.

      Other classes–history, English, etc–are more nebulous, but I think there are similar applications. I know of several programs that acknowledge what I’m talking about here by accelerating students through high school and placing them in college by age 16. I think that’s a bit tricky, because there’s so much to learn socially in high school and college, but I like the idea of consolidating all the important stuff you need to know before getting to college so you can choose classes at that point that have a direct connection to your future career.

  16. I learned how to cram, and how to do it well.
    I learned that if I cram it all goes away between 1 day and 1 week of the test.
    I learned how to make BS sound like smart BS that just might not be BS.
    I learned that I hate everything to do with circuits after simple resistive circuits.
    I learned how to think, and if that didn’t work guess.

    F’ IT WE’LL DO IT LIVE! (college motto)


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