Don’t put non-educators in charge of education

I encountered this little message on Shitter, and was appalled at all the comments that enthusiastically agreed. This is not a curriculum. It’s a hodge-podge of random topics that the creator thinks they have mastered, and shame on you if you haven’t.

Look, what educators do is design a program of instruction that builds the basics first, that the student can then build on to reach more complex topics. It’s a tree, where attention must first be paid to the trunk, and then the branches. The stuff in this cartoon is a collection of twigs…some useful, others specialized, others mostly irrelevant.

Look at the first one, for instance: taxes. You have got to be kidding me. Doing your taxes is an exercise in following somewhat arbitrary instructions, doing basic arithmetic a step at a time. In a sense, most education is already all about obeying a series of instructions, are you seriously suggesting that tax forms are an important or interesting part of your schooling? Fuck off.

Then, coding. I’ve noticed that a lot of programmers have an inflated sense of the importance of what they do — it’s useful, but not essential for most people’s lives. This is basically vocational instruction that’s not going to be at all useful unless you get into a career in IT. (I’m not an outsider looking in here: I spent about fifteen years of my life doing lots of coding for laboratory work. I enjoyed it, but I haven’t had to fire up a compiler in an even longer period of time.)

Cooking? Really? Schools already offer classes in cooking. It’s called home economics. It’s usually optional; in my education you could take either home ec or a shop class. I did both because I wanted to. I spent a year learning the skills I’d need to be a line cook (vocational ed again), and another year in shop, which at my school was largely about drafting and printing. Both were cool, I’m glad I took them, I acquired some simple skills I use even now, but mandatory? Students don’t have infinite time.

The rest are similar tiny twigs on the tree of education. Isn’t high school basically already a gauntlet compelling you to learn a combination of survival skills, social etiquette, and stress management? You think a class would be more effective than navigating the protocols and cliques of your first prom?

I notice what’s missing here: math, history, literature, art, science. Maybe they just assumed they’re already teaching those, but sometimes standards are terribly low. I remember learning US history, which is an important subject, but some of the students were lucky enough to get a teacher who was actually qualified to teach it (Hey, Mr Richardson, I saw what my peers got in that class, and I was jealous.) I got the basketball coach, and the class was a semester of pure jingo and superficial memorization of dates.

Forget this uninformed list of random topics, which was probably cobbled together by a programmer, and instead teach what educators say forms a good framework for learning, and maybe instead give teachers the resources they need and enforce good standards.

This looks like something an unqualified home-schooler would assemble, and that’s what I’m afraid of — that there are a lot of people thinking “basic home repaire” trumps spelling and math and civics.


  1. says

    Taxes? Definitely useful. How else are REthuglican Trumpsters going to learn how to avoid paying them. Cooking I learned from my mother. By the time I was 12 I could prepare a three course meal for a family of five. Home maintenance I learned from my father.Some basic skills and more advanced stuff such as building walls, fitting doors and some basic electrical.. Car maintenance from my father as well. At the age of ten I helped him rebuild the engine and transmission of his car and do a complete body swap. More advanced skills came when I got my first car and had to keep it running.
    The maths, science, english and languages I learned from good teachers and thats the way it should be. Mind you the Phys-Ed teacher could never teach me to love sport. He was fat, lazy and a chain smoker.

  2. hemidactylus says

    Some of the suggestions aren’t entirely without merit, but should be optional.

    Insurance, taxes and personal finance can be combined.

    Public speaking, social etiquette, and stress management could be combined.

    Self-defense and survival skills could be combined. Add cooking in the backwoods for when capitalism croaks on us. I think they call it JROTC.

    Auto shop was an elective more useful when cars were much simpler. Now that could be combined with coding to build Fast and Furious street machines. Fun for the kids. Not for the parents or law enforcement.

  3. raven says

    You have got to be kidding me. Doing your taxes is an exercise in following somewhat arbitrary instructions, doing basic arithmetic a step at a time.

    AFAIK, most people do their taxes online using computer programs.
    That is so you can efile and get your refund back faster.

    While we are creating imaginary school plans, I do get PZs point that you need to know the basics first.
    I would add that there are four very important things missing on that list.

    .1. Know how to use the internet.
    Especially know how to use search engines and avoid online scams.

    .2. Critical thinking skills.
    Know the difference between reality and fantasy and how to reality test.

    In a lot of schools teaching critical thinking skills are not done and is actually discouraged from being taught.
    Critical thinking skills are toxic to the fundie xians, GOP, antivaxxers, scammers, and the oligarchies that seek to own and run the USA.

    A good start would be assigning Carl Sagan’s book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

    .3. Active shooter drills.
    Thank the NRA and the GOP for this one.

    .4. Sex education, birth control, right to body autonomy, right to say no, consent.

    Teaching necessity of active consent and right to self autonomy would go a long way towards keeping kids, adolescents, and adults safe and out of various forms of harm and trouble, e.g. statuatory rape, off the sex offender lists, unwanted pregnancy.

    How to get an abortion in a Red state.
    You don’t. You travel to a free Blue state.

  4. says

    My dad was an auto mechanic. I didn’t take advantage of him to learn that skill (really not interested myself), and it wouldn’t be much use anymore since cars don’t have carburetors and repairing them requires plugging them into a specialized computer to diagnose any problems.

  5. billseymour says

    I was equally appalled when I read that.

    … coding.

    Yes, definitely a vocational subject; and relatively few people will find themselves with that vocation.  My experience with computers goes back to punching Hollerith cards (I’m not old enough to have experienced wired boards), I can code in maybe about ten languages including assembler languages for various CPUs, and my knowledge barely scratches the surface.  Kids need to learn to write trivial programs in Basic?  OK, maybe a few will think it’s fun.

    Cooking? Really?

    My vocational classes in ninth grade were shop and typing.  I’m really glad I learned those skills, but they don’t help me to think about the world.

    I remember learning US history, …  I got the basketball coach, …

    My tenth grade biology teacher was the wrestling coach.  The only things I remember are dissecting a starfish and the names of maybe ten bones of vertebrates.

    … give teachers the resources they need and enforce good standards.

    Yes, please.  Teachers are my heroes.  Let them do their jobs.

    (I’m guessing that the cartoon is part of the larger Republican assault on expertise.)

  6. hillaryrettig1 says

    Notable omission: civics / citizenship / exercising your power as a citizen. (Not that we have much.)

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Personal finance is more than arithmetic – but would make elementary math classes both more useful and more “relevant” to kids who don’t find math interesting in itself.

    Show-and-Tell and class presentations already provide public speaking basics, and are more prep for that than most people will ever need.

    Self defense covers a LOT more than roundhouse kicks. Learning to identify/avoid/prevent trouble situations would indeed help many kids; basic martial arts, except from the most conscientious instructors, would just make schoolyard fights more injurious.

    raven @ # 3 has it absolutely right about critical thinking in particular – but churches (in particular and among others) would mobilize to shut any such classes down pronto, at least in the USA.

  8. larpar says

    I had classes that included most all of that back in the ’70s. Self defense was on the playground and survival skills were outsourced to the Boy Scouts.

  9. charley says

    I agree about leaving it to educators to decide what is taught in school, but some of these would be very useful skills to learn. Ideally, parents should see to it that the practical stuff gets covered, but that can’t always happen.

    You’re wrong about auto repair. I still save a lot by doing many things myself, and YouTube is a great help. For me, fixing things provides a simple kind of satisfaction.

  10. mdtechie says

    I spent most of my career doing software development. Coding is the easy part of the job, and the part most likely to be automated at some point in the future. Figuring out what to make the code do is the hard part. You learn that only through experience. An elective course teaching how digital technology works could be useful. Even more useful would be a course in how people use deceptive statistics, deceptive language, deceptive graphics, and faulty logic to lie and to manipulate people.

  11. says

    Anyone suspect “self defense” is actually a backdoor to sneaking guns into schools? At the very least it sounds like another excuse for jocks to harass non-jocks in the guise of practice.

  12. bcw bcw says

    I agree personal finance should be part of math class, both because it is useful and uses real life problems that give meaning to learning math. Of course, the credit card companies wouldn’t like it. As to the rest, yeah, someones pet ideas.

  13. TheoLib says

    Insurance? Yes. The thing that struck me most about the Republican efforts to sabotage Obamacare was not how despicable the Republicans were–and they were very despicable–, but how many of them were completely ignorant about how insurance works and, even more striking, how willing they were to advertise the fact to the public.

    Aside from that political pet peeve, I pretty much agree with PZ. (Phys-ed, like other subjects, has both good and bad teachers. I was not one who excelled at PE, but I remember some of my PE teachers were smart and knowledgeable and took the education aspect of teaching very seriously. And my extremely good drivers-ed teacher was the wrestling coach at another high school.)

  14. Snarki, child of Loki says

    Cooking is the Ur-technology of humanity: it makes the shortened intestine and larger brain possible, so YES it should be “learned”, but that doesn’t mean a class.

    You can probably skip out on learning how to knap flint arrowheads (for now, it could change), but EVERYONE should know how to do basic cooking.

    Learning cooking at home, or in scouting for camping, all good. And practice, practice, practice.

    I was shocked when friends (highly intelligent, with professional degrees & shit) told me they “didn’t know how to cook pasta”. REALLY?

  15. Callinectes says

    Some of these could easily be folded into a single ongoing class. Some of these would have been very useful to someone like me who has considerable anxiety about things like taxes or investment and insurance and can’t shake the feeling that I missed something very important because I’m only ever winging it with no foundation.

    I can also state with confidence that the only thing I learned in school about social etiquette and stress management was to avoid all human beings whenever possible no matter the cost, especially my own peers. All interaction was punished severely, and not by the school authorities.

  16. mordred says

    “Coding” isn’t necessarily one of the thinks most people need to learn. General computer and internet literacy on the other hand is something you probably need these days – and even that should come after acquiring basic knowledge about the world and critical thinking skills.
    Even some of the software developers I’ve worked with in recent years would have profited much more from learning basic problem solving skills and how to find and acquire new knowledge than from writing a few simple Python programs.

    Not much to say about the rest, some simply has nothing to do with school educations, others should simply follow from the basic knowledge school should actually teach you.

    Oh, I had some years of fun with an ignorant alcoholic bully who taught PE and English. I didn’t put up with his stupid insults and talked back. It showed in my grades. And a certain classmates grades after she became my girlfriend.

  17. mordred says

    Loki@13: Yeah, I was quite shocked when, some years ago, I watched a coworker with a PhD in Computer science and good general knowledge trying and failing to cook pasta…

    On the other hand I remember my cooking classes, and we mostly prepared stuff like frozen fish sticks or instant sauce. I’d already learned more than that from simply watching my grandmother. And the teacher wasn’t even able to give decent instructions for that.

    And I did actually did have some competent teachers, just got unlucky in a few subject in some years.

  18. Allison says

    As a list of things that an adult ought to be able to do, it’s not bad, though a bit incomplete. Most of us here are privileged enough that this was passed on informally, and we probably assume most of it you learn by osmosis, or even that the knowledge is coded in your genes. But it isn’t. And then people like the commenters here will mock the people who get into trouble by not knowing this stuff for being “stupid.”

    For instance, taxes. Most people’s taxes are really simple, and once they know how to copy stuff from their W-2 onto the form, they can do it themselves in 1/2 hour. And I’ve had problems with computer programs (TurboTax) and CPAs doing my taxes wrong; I had to keep correcting them (or overriding, with TurboTax.)

    And social etiquette, a.k.a. social skills. I have a child on the autistic spectrum whose main difficulty is not knowing this stuff, so it’s a rather sore point with me. Or how to apply for jobs. Again, it’s assumed that people just know this stuff, but a lot of people don’t.

    When you make fun of things like this list, your privilege is showing.

  19. James Hammond says

    I like the “lead with your crotch” image that they used for the self-defense icon. Especially with what looks like a high spinning back kick.

    @PZ #4

    it wouldn’t be much use anymore since cars don’t have carburetors and repairing them requires plugging them into a specialized computer to diagnose any problems.

    Not too specialized these days. I bought a reader for $30 that connects to a free phone app to get all the diagnostic codes.

    I took auto shop in 1983, and from what I can see, the biggest changes have been in adding to the web of sensors throughout the engine and beyond. My 2011 F150 and 2011 Prius have hundreds, all looking at temperatures, timings, fluid flow, tire pressures, and even torque on the automatic window motors. If anything, all of this seems to make diagnosis easier.

    Yes, the sensor network has also allowed further complications, like adding the ability for the engine computer to adjust the ignition timing in the fly.

    But the basics seem to be the same. There’s just a lot more wires to watch out for.

  20. JM says

    Isn’t high school basically already a gauntlet compelling you to learn a combination of survival skills, social etiquette, and stress management? You think a class would be more effective than navigating the protocols and cliques of your first prom?

    A class would have been great. Sink or swim education only works for those at the swim end. Those of us that immediately sank just ended up worse off.

  21. says

    The first thing that offends me here is the idea that the only application for math skills is in dealing with money. In a world where people throw numbers at you constantly, whether it be the realm of politics, commerce, or in legal proceedings, to convince you of their point of view, sound mathematical reasoning ability is essential.

  22. flex says

    I dunno. A course on taxation which discussed the history of taxes, how they were used/abused, how they are spent, etc., that might be interesting. Probably best at a college level for people studying history.

    But, on the other hand, I don’t know how many people I’ve met who have no idea how a Marginal Tax Bracket works. I’ve explained it so many time to ignorant, middle-class, professionals (mainly engineers because that’s who I work with) that I’m thinking of having wallet-sized cards printed up. One period in High School math class should be enough to teach everyone how a Marginal Tax Bracket works. One period! It’s probably clear that’s a pet peeve of mine.

    And I agree with #6, hillaryrettig1, the one subject everyone should have a good grounding in is civics. If you don’t know how the system works, you can’t successfully challenge or change it.

  23. moarscienceplz says

    What about statistics? Maybe PZ is assuming that to be a core subject in math, but I got none in my school. Most of what I know I got from a TV course a PBS channel aired once upon a time. Perhaps students are getting much better stats instruction today, but in my experience very few people have enough statistics to get through an ordinary life, let alone any kind of scientific or technical career.

  24. whheydt says

    I’m going to–not defend, but restate–“coding”. “Coding” is the grunt work of going from what a systems analyst hands you to compilable/executable code. Rather, given the way nearly everything is built now would be a basic course in both hardware (what’s actually inside your gadget) and software (how you get it do anything). There is actually an organization in the UK that provides teachers with the tools and materials to teach this stuff, and they do it for free. They’ve even held free weekend seminars for teachers to give them hands on experience.
    I don’t think that “learning programming” is what anyone needs to work in IT, but it should go a ways to understand a great many everyday objects as something other than a black box.
    And, just for the record, I have wired plug boards for unit record machines.

  25. Akira MacKenzie says

    I wasn’t even sure they taught “home economics” anymore. I took it middle school myself, but I feared it had gone the way of the VHS and Pet Rock. Since I never reproduced, I asked my sister who’s brood are going to the same school district we did. Turns out they do, only the call it “Family and Consumer Science.” We might be an exburb, but our property values are high enough out here to afford a descent set of public schools.

  26. kome says

    Oh god, I see that list and I just know the person who put it together is one of those “schools shouldn’t teach you what to think, but how to think” idiots.

  27. vucodlak says

    The single most important thing that schools should be teaching, and indeed that anyone can learn, is empathy. It’s not enough to hope that children will learn it as a side effect of being around others, and a hell of a lot of kids won’t get it at home. Learning to empathize with others, to consider different viewpoints and why people hold them, is not only the basis for several of the things on that list (public speaking, social etiquette, group survival), but is vital for contextualizing history, social studies, and civics. It’s a key component of critical thinking, and of a sustainable civilization.

    All of which is why it isn’t taught; the survival of predatory capitalism depends on stunted empathy.

  28. Kevin Karplus says

    I both agree with you that the list is not the core of an education, and disagree with you about the importance of some of the topics. Students should come out of high school understanding enough about finance to realize that taking on huge debts for consumer goods is not a good idea, and that student debt is not free money.

    But the line that triggered my desire to respond was “This looks like something an unqualified home-schooler would assemble”, and I have to disagree. I did some home-schooling of my son (grades 10–12) when the local high schools couldn’t provide him a suitable education, and I joined a few home-schooling e-mail lists. Most of the home schoolers on those lists would be appalled at the proposed subjects being the core of an education—they were looking for ways to get more solid education than their local high schools and community colleges provided. Of course, home-schooling is a very wide umbrella, so there are undoubtedly people who home school who would applaud the list, but I don’t think that list is more representative of home schoolers than of people who send their kids to the local public school.

  29. Alverant says

    How about we change “coding” to “computer usage” and combine it with others into a “life skills” class. “Computer usage” will cover things like the basics of smart phone, tablets, laptops etc along with common problems. Like going over AP names (my network will change the AP name at the worst times).

  30. seachange says

    This is a lulz chart. I find it funny! If I were the chart-y sorta person, I might make the same thing for the lolz TBH.

    As far as STEM, CalTech just dropped requirements for some of those since many high schools no longer offer them. :) They’re partnering with Khan academy. :) :)

    You can absolutely use coding skills on people. Kludging together something when you get an error code and you’re not sure why? Same thing as dealing with your crazy-ass landlord. Computers can’t think? Most people, even if capable, they -don’t- think.

    As for self-defense I find myself conflicted. My dad thought the soviets would nuke us and the chinese would invade, or the chinese would nuke us and the soviets would invade. The man was not internally consistent about this. Me, my sisters, and my mom all learned to shoot, and learned karate. I survived jr. high school and high school relatively unscathed for a gay man by reluctantly breaking parts of/beating the shit out of the bullies. That I would do this made them more cautious in general.

  31. numerobis says

    Personal finance, home economics, and shop were taught when I was a kid (personal finance was part of shop), but just six years later my sister saw none of it. Few of my same-aged US friends were exposed to them in school.

    I suspect PZ is old and thinks schools haven’t moved away from teaching the practical skills they used to teach.

  32. lotharloo says

    Coding is great to teach to students, except that they need to be taught how to solve problems, come up with solutions and then write them down carefully. Coding would be stupid to teach if it boils down to memorizing stupid programming language syntax.

  33. cheerfulcharlie says

    The far right has been working hard to destroy real history in public schools. CRT! Wokism! Cultural Marxism!

    He who controls the past controls the present. He who controls the present controls the future.
    – George Orwell. 1984

  34. microraptor says

    I remember when I was in high school in the 90s there was such a big deal made about the school’s computer courses and how Intel was sponsoring them and you were going to be able to get a high-paying tech industry job right out of high school if you took these classes.

    By the time I graduated, the Dot Com bubble had burst and the job market was flooded with people who had years of actual experience. Also, the things that we were taught in those classes turned out to already be obsolete.

  35. DanDare says

    My mantra for the foundation of education is thinking, literacy, numeracy, operacy.
    Thinking : critical (reasoning) and lateral (perception movement)
    Operacy: how to priorities, do things and arrange things, including self care

  36. nomdeplume says

    The Right, all round the world, doesn’t want children to learn the facts and methods of science, or history, and definitely doesn’t want them engaging in critical thinking. Goodness, if that started happening the Right would never be elected again. So, education should involve only religious brain-washing, bowdlerised history, and some practical skills for being effective consumers in a capitalist society. So, “home schooling” (an oxymoron), and this kind of nonsense curriculum.

  37. says

    This is what the schools in the Fallout universe taught before the bombs fell.How did that work out? Oh yeah everybody died and the survivors live in absolute squalor for two centuries.

  38. Larry says

    Where are they expected to find time for active shooter drills and battlefield triage training?

  39. John Morales says

    I remember discovering symbolic (propositional) logic in University, and wondering why it was not taught at the secondary level (or even earlier).

    So nice to be able to reformulate natural language into logical propositions, and then manipulate the logic by cranking the handle. Quite the revelation.

  40. kaleberg says

    I think there is an argument to be made for a “modern life” or whatever course that covers a bit of cooking, a bit about government, a bit about the kinds of legal forms one is going to have to fill out as a grown up, a bit about housing, employment and contract law and so on. Even better, include a section on further education, what to look for and what to avoid in schools and loans, the kinds of certifications and how to find out if they would be useful.

    I remember a confession by a former Republican some years back. He had been working in New Orleans after Katrina and one of his room mates told him about a course for low income children that involved going to a sit down restaurant to learn things like ordering from a menu and a host of other things that this guy and so many others assume everyone just has to know but a surprising number of people have no clue. He couldn’t even imagine such people existed. Imagine, people who had never ordered a meal in a sit down restaurant. He was remarking on this, and his other room mate said that he worked at a bank, and that asking some people for two forms of identification was like asking them to spin straw into gold, except that they had at least heard a story about someone who could do that. He was not a Republican for much longer, to his credit.

    There’s an awful lot of stuff that seems completely obvious to so many, but is surprisingly arcane to even more. Read a book like Limbo about working class Americans crossing into the middle class. There’s a whole unwritten code they have to learn or figure out. You can’t expect everyone to be able to reason from basic principles, English, math, social studies, to negotiate a college application or sales contract.

  41. Ada Christine says

    i did have a mandatory personal finance class in high school. it was boring and easy and I spent most of my time talking to my friends or teaching myself programming.

  42. StevoR says

    Critical thinking – being able to analyse logc and arguments and detect fallacies is something I reckon should be mandatory in that the purpose of education should be teaching people how to think for themselves in my opinion.

    Also ethics – though definitley NOT religion – and consent for basic social skills and ability for people in society to get along..

  43. says

    There should be a class on “how to learn”
    After all, it’s a skill and there are methods that can improve one’s ability and speed at taking on new information. Humans understand a lot about how it’s done (overview, try, summarize, study for tasks) (study think summarize repeat for knowledge) (study, hypothesize, experiment, summarize) (research, study, summarize, repeat) and thinkers have been using various mnemonic techniques since ancient times. There are different modes of learning which are more or less tailored to different problems and knowing which works best when is the starting-line.

    I suppose this could be filed with basic principles of philosophy but I see it as important in its own right, fundamental even.

  44. hemidactylus says

    @43- StevoR
    Not completely OT as it combines the best of auto shop and coding but some exciting overtakes at Monza. Checo #2! Seriously risky dogfighting between Sainz and Leclerc toward end that could have taken them both out and put Russell on the podium Verstappen takes 10 in a row. Record!

    Best quote when Checo was battling Russell, Mercedes crew told Russell to manage better and Russell replied “I don’t know if you can see but I have a car up my ass right now!”

  45. birgerjohansson says

    The inkompetents in charge are almost -but not quite- useless enough to be government ministers in a tory government.

  46. steve1 says

    I was a freshmen in highschool taking a class in business. The teacher was teaching us how to do our income taxe. For when we had an income to tax. No one in the class was getting it. I mean no one not the smartest not the dumbest. The teacher saw this and decided to start over. On the secend try again no one got it. He gave up. I think we spent half a semester learning nothing.

  47. jenorafeuer says

    When I went to high school in British Columbia there was a mandatory ‘Consumers Education’ program which taught everybody things like how to write a cheque, how to balance a chequebook, and how credit cards worked. It was boring for me (my father worked at a bank and I’d been taught how to handle my bank account early) but the fact that has a thread called ‘This Is Why We’re In a Recession’ about people who don’t understand the first thing about how bank accounts or credit cards work that got to ‘part 115’ a couple of weeks ago indicates that no, not everybody has the slightest clue as to how money actually works.