“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” -Victor Hugo
We have all heard this from students in almost every grade of school, “When am I ever going to use this in real life?”
The problem is, the question is hard to argue even though most parents try. As I am thinking about it now, I was an excellent student, but I have never used a lot of the information I learned except at trivia night. I excelled at history but never needed it in any job I have ever done. The idea of learning history, as I understand it, is to not repeat the mistakes of the past yet here we are talking about the boom and bust cycles of an economy acting like another great depression is impossible.
I loved physics in school, it was one of my favourite subjects because we got to use math in relation to the real world. How and why things worked the way they did. However, I have never come across a physics problem in my adult life that needed what I learned in school to help me prevail. I was a numbers geek and absolutely thrived in the math class but even though trigonometry came up again when I learned electrical theory as a young adult I never needed to know how to mathematically predict an alternating current sign wave to diagnose an electrical problem in the decade I was in the industry.
I am still a fierce student of many things, but they are always things I am either very passionate about or things that are useful to my everyday life. Even if that is philosophy to help me be a little happier or psychology to understand why people do some of the crazy things they do. I am not an educator, but I do have an intense passion for education and this subject is one that is very near and dear to my heart. But enough about me, I went looking for a lifelong educator who was willing to take these concepts head on.
I found that in 2012, cognitive scientist Roger C. Schank wrote a provocative piece for the Washington Post, “No, Algebra Isn’t Necessary — and Enough of STEM.” In the piece, Schank proposes that the average American adult will never use the reasoning skills required for algebra, higher math and science— and rebuffs the notion that these subjects help students in other ways.
“Reasoning mathematically is a nice skill but one that is not relevant to most of life”, he wrote.
“We reason about many things: parenting, marriage, careers, finances, business, politics. Do we learn how to reason about these things by learning algebra? The idea is absurd.”
Before I read this article of Mr. Schank’s I had no idea that algebra was intended by most academics to be used to help cognitive reasoning in other areas of life. Did you?
Missing basic skills
I have already written earlier about why they don’t teach money or finances in school. As if we all won’t use money one day though I never really thought about parenting, or marriage, or understanding emotions like Mr. Schank points out. These are useful life skills that will absolutely be 100% necessary in our lives yet not even a blip on the radar of education. It’s as if you are supposed to learn these subjects at home even though our parents never learned them either.
In a follow-up article, Schank said his first piece was met by a tidal wave of anger and criticism—mostly by members of the academic community who apparently felt threatened by his suggestion. Of course a ton of ego’s were going to get bruised by the notion that their total careers were a complete waste of time. Because of this backlash he went on to challenge the validity of almost every subject currently taught in high school, from chemistry (“Do you really need to know the elements of the periodic table?”) to French (“You cannot possibly learn a language any way other than being immersed in it”).
Whether you agree with Schank that every subject taught in school is useless, he does have a point: Most of what students learn in school doesn’t get used in real life, let alone remembered. If the vast majority of high school graduates won’t ever use algebra, trigonometry, or calculus in their jobs, why are these required courses?
For that matter, why does this line of thinking carry over into the general education requirements of our already overpriced colleges and universities? Why make students take on thousands of dollars in debt to take classes that for them are useless?
Its as if the subject matter is not what they are trying to teach us at all but rather to memorize useless and trivial data that you aren’t passionate about. To do what you are told because you have to otherwise you will have a consequence. I mean that is really what a passionless job is right, doing what your told, remembering useless data, shuffling paperwork, and going through the monotony in order to get a paycheck just to show up and do it all again tomorrow.
An Alternative Idea
I’m not saying we should scoff at the idea of a well-rounded education, but since we are discussing education reform then let’s start by steering it toward curriculum that dials way back on courses most students will never use. Instead, we should focus on subject’s students actually need for their chosen careers and their lives in general.
Trigonometry and calculus should be available for students who either need them or are genuinely interested—but not for those who don’t. If we took this route to revamp our curricula, we could save millions in taxpayer dollars and make the students’ education more streamlined, the time spent in school more efficient and effective.
You see when you follow this train of thinking then you will obviously begin to ask, “Well how is a child supposed to know what he will need for his career so early on?” That my friends is the right question. What if we started to develop and nurture a children’s passion and proclivity to certain fields of endeavor at a very young age. What if instead of memorization techniques we taught following your natural gifts and finding what lights you up inside then harnessing those strengths and using them for betterment of all mankind.
“We can teach people the skills they need if we allow them to choose what interests them and then teach them to predict, evaluate, diagnose, etc., within their area of interest. Teaching algebra and then hoping those skills will transfer to other areas of life is simply fantasy, a fantasy that makes our kids bored and miserable in school”, Schank says.
Let’s say we started this reform at the higher education level and did away with most of the unnecessary “general ed” topics for an Associate’s Degree. Perhaps we could actually make school affordable by making it more efficient for the job market and keep students from getting buried in debt just to make a decent wage.
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