Friday, June 15, 2012

11 New "Subjects" More Important Than Technology

My daughter's school recently undertook an extensive parent survey. We were asked to rank various aspects of the curricula on a 1-10 scale, both in terms of how well they are doing in teaching as well as our opinions of the relative importance of subjects like English, Music, World Languages, Math, Drama, Science, PE, History and so on. I was sort of surprised when I came to Technology. It didn't seem to fit on the list. I guess I knew my daughter was taking "technology" classes, but I'd never heard anything about them. When I ask her what they learned, she informed me that they practiced using various software programs.

I gave Technology a very low ranking in terms of importance. 

Every high school has a technology curriculum. In fact, I doubt there are many middle or elementary schools without one, and there are even (my lord) preschools out there boasting of their technology. It kind of sounds good, I suppose, technology, but from what I can tell, very few are actually learning "technology," which is defined by Wikipedia as:

. . . the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a preexisting solution to a problem, achieve a goal or perform a specific function . . . Technologies significantly affect human as well as other animal species' ability to control and adapt to their natural environments.

Now that sounds cool and important as a course of study, but we all know that when it comes to our schools, Technology is essentially a euphemism for learning to use a computer. Not programming, mind you, but simply learning to manipulate Excel spreadsheets or put together Power Point presentations. Again, not horrible things, but really? This is what we're using our valuable classroom time on? Of course computers are here to stay and seem destined to become an increasingly central part of our lives, but you know what? The kids are already waaaay ahead of you and me, including most of their technology teachers, and they got there not through "technology classes," but through the tried and true methods of play: tinkering around, answering their own questions, employing the scientific method. Yes, computers are here to stay, just the way other tools are, like automobiles, telephones, refrigerators, and screwdrivers, but no one would think of dedicating 13 years of schooling to train kids on how to use any of them.

I don't buy the argument that kids must be "exposed" to computers in school because otherwise they'll fall behind. The only kids at risk for this are the ones who are so poor their families don't have these tools in their homes, and frankly, they have more serious problems than not knowing how to Skype. Now if you're saying that technology should be "integrated" into the rest of the curriculum, I'm with you, although I see no reason to force it. We all already use our computers, naturally, the way we use any tool, when it's the best way to go, such as for writing and researching, calculating, communicating, or shopping. You know, the way humans always integrate useful technology into our learning, like crayons, rulers, paint brushes, or blocks. We don't need special training, just access and the space-time to explore.

And I'd be all in favor of a Technology curriculum that was the kind of broad investigation of technology suggested by the Wikipedia definition, one that gave children hands-on practice using a wide variety of developmentally appropriate tools, machines and systems to solve problems, but no one needs 13 years of computer training. 

My wife and I were talking about this over dinner the other night and got into making a list of candidate "subjects" we felt would be more important than Technology (as it's now taught) and should be included alongside English, Music, and Science as new categories in the canon of our standard 13 years of schooling. Here's what we came up with, in no particular order:

Salesmanship: So, you really want your kid to be "successful" in life? Being able to make a sale is probably the single greatest guarantee that a person will thrive no matter what their chosen path, be it business, arts, public service, or stay-at-home mom. And think what it would do for our critical thinking and decision-making skills if we were all well-versed in the art of the deal: it would make it a hell of a lot harder to pull the wool over our eyes. (For the sake of "selling" this idea, of course, we'd probably want to call it something traditional like Debate or Rhetoric, subjects that already exist in many schools, but which are rarely offered as part of the core curriculum.) 

Conflict Resolution: How transformative would that be: a world full of people with 13 years of conflict resolution training under their belts? Now that's a technology worthy of intensive, sustained pursuit and practice.

Personal Finance: Do I even need to explain why this is far more vital than the ability to "work" a computer? 

Public Speaking: I've seen surveys that show that a huge percentage of people fear public speaking more than death. I suppose this kind of falls under the salesmanship category and should probably simply be integrated into everything we do, but the ability to get up in front of our fellow humans and be informative, motivating, entertaining, and/or persuasive is a competency I wish for everyone. And it truly is one that takes a lifetime to master.

Political Activism: Our democracy simply would not be as imperiled as it is today if we all were well-versed in the technology of self governance. So many of us, particularly young people, feel disenfranchised, making the assertion that "my vote doesn't count," not understanding that voting is an important, but ultimately very small part of what makes democracy work.

Community Organizing:  I often think that's all my life is: helping to organize people to achieve goals none of us can accomplish on our own.

Entrepreneurship/Business Management:  Okay "Tiger Moms," do you really want to raise a kid who will go out there an kick butt in the real world?  How about insisting that he actually learn, through experience, what it takes to run his own business? That's where almost all the billionaires come from. And even if you don't hope your kid is the next Bill Gates (and I hope you don't), just think of how much richer her life will be knowing what it takes to get a venture off the ground, for-profit or nonprofit, how to grow it, sustain it, and manage both the resources and people required to make it thrive. Not to mention learning the value of a buck.

Driver Training and Automobile Maintenance: If there has to be one specific tool for which we could use 13 years of training, it's our cars.

Home Maintenance: And speaking of maintenance, think of the money, time, and aggravation everyone would save, not to mention the sense of responsibility and sheer personal satisfaction to be gained in a world of life-long do-it-yourselfers.

Media Critique and Analysis: We are inundated by the media. It comes at us from all sides, pretty much 24-hours a day. We can protect our littlest children from it to a certain extent, but by the time they're ready for Kindergarten, they are at the mercy of the world. I would love to see a generation of children who are able critique and analyze media messages for themselves, understand who is creating these messages, and what they are trying to get us to do. 

Gardening: This one makes our list because we just really, really like the idea of there being as many gardens out there as computers. What a better place the world would be.

What would make your list?

UPDATE: Reader Carol over in the comments on Facebook, suggested Cooking. Yes, absolutely, and to that I might add, the whole Home Economics curricula from the 1950's and 60's.

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Chaz said...

Amazing how so many of these are actually taught at my kid's Montessori school.

Conflict Resolution? Check.
Personal Finance? Check.
Public Speaking? Check.
Political Activism? Check.
Entrepreneurship/Business Management? Check.
Community Organizing? Check.
Gardening? Check.

We don't do home and auto maintenance at GSMS but I damn sure have the home stuff covered. Auto? That's what mechanics are for.

Teacher Tom said...

Yep Chaz, I think most preschools consider all of these to be vital "subjects," but it so often gets lost as the kids move through to older grades. Just one more thing we need to be pushing "up" into elementary school and beyond!

(Yeah, the automobile one made our list only because we were trying to think of a machine that is more "important" to use correctly than a computer.)

Laura said...

Great list! I love them all, and wish I had been better trained in some of those topics.

I do think if computer programming was what they meant by technology, it would be beneficial. Though I may be a bit biased (I am a programmer). ;)

Aly K said...

When I was in school Technology class was what most people would call shop - wood working, metal working, some work with electronics, etc. It was required for two years in middle school and then became optional but specialized beyond that. That class was outstanding, particularly for those of us who don't have handy families and hadn't had any kind of woodworking since preschool. It was the class called Computer Skills, which was thankfully only required for a semester, that was the waste of time. I still don't quite understand why we were being graded on our ability to make calenders and play the touch typing games we used to play in the third grade. I remember dreading that class... but "tech," as we called it, was a favorite.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

Funny you mention "integrating" the technology...

I work at a PreK-8 school in the NorthEast and my official job title is "Technology Integration Specialist". I read your blog all the time, and have been inspired in a number of ways from your postings. Just the other week, in PreK - 1st grade we gathered up a large number of old laptops, desktops, radios, VCR's, cordless phones, etc. and laid them all out with tools to have the kids take them apart and see what's inside and tinker with. They had a blast! (so did my colleagues after they got over thinking I was a bit off for giving PreK real tools to take apart a computer...)

We also have a number of iPads, and (based on a student taking the iPad and rubbing it on his head to show me how he could use it that way) we did a series of explorations to see how many objects the iPad will react with - Fun Fact discovered by a child, you can use a dry sponge in your hand to interact with an iPad.

While I agree with a lot of your post, "Technology" class doesn't have to be a terrible thing, any more than a "play-based curriculum". Just like a Math class where you only ever do worksheets, Technology class is only as good as the teacher's approach. The trick is to use technology devices like iPads and computers as creation rather than consumption devices (if I can find it, will have to send you a great animated story with voice-overs from PreK about a heroic duck saving a princess from dragons and zombies)

It's all in how you use it :)

- Steve

Jessica said...

Media Critique/Analysis and Public Speakig fall into the purview of English, which is what I teach :) its a part of the standards in CA. I also incorporate technology, typing, online submissions and editing, blogging and response, etc.

On election years, we do a bit of political activism - usually involving debate and analysis of campaign materials, but that belongs in a high school Government class. Community organizing is handled in required community service hours (although that's not enough) and the annual letter writing campaign we do in class- where students have to identify and problem in the communit and argue for a particular solution (letter form, mailed to the city council).

A lot of these should definitely be touched on every year in age appropriate way, and we can incorporate them into the classes we already have.

It just takes people with vision to help change the way administrators and teachers think about curriculum development.

Anonymous said...

Montessori is elementary too, not just preschool.

Floor Pie said...

I would love to see urban farming on the public school curriculum. They do a bit of gardening this time of year, but how awesome would it be if we could expand it to keeping chickens, bees, a few goats... So good for so many of the kids' needs.

I do want to keep technology around, though. Maybe it's redundant at a private school where the students have ample access to technology outside of school, but in public schools like the one my son attends that's simply not the case. (You're familiar with the concept of the "digital divide," I'm sure.) School and the library are the only "hands on" time some of these kids get with computers. (Our school also teaches bike riding and bike safety in P.E. class for similar reasons. Not everyone has a bike or a safe place to learn how to ride it.)

Also, technology is a HUGE benefit for kids on the autism spectrum who struggle with handwriting and other tasks that come easily to typical students.

Hillary said...

Hi Tom,
I recently found your blog and have really enjoyed your words, thoughts and perspective.

I agree with everything on your list with some extra love towards community organizing, personal finance, and conflict resolution.

The thing is that I wish I had been required to learn how to use spreadsheets and powerpoint in high school. I think it would have been an asset. Since technology is so pervasive in our society I think may be helpful to look at learning technology as a horizontal skill that touches upon these enlightened subjects. Like part of the personal finance course would be building spreadsheets to manage and plan finances and part of a community organizing curriculum would include creating a powerpoint to share with stakeholders (because of course these classes would be hands on and project based, right ;)

Again, thanks for the inspiration.

berlee said...

especially since in the course of 13 yrs, whatever computer tech they started with will become obsolete.

i would add some sort of physical ed. that list, with a focus on physical and mental integration and awareness.

also, anatomy and physiology presented in a really personally relevant style. too many people have no real understanding of how their bodies work.

and art/music because they are imperative and underestimated as foundational for the more "pragmatic" things and valuing designated time simply creating for it's own sake, for expression or design or beauty, keeps some of the crazy from getting out of balance.

Anonymous said...

Love this.

liz said...

Love this.

RobynHeud said...

I taught a class for the kids 8-11 last week at church where I used fake money to pay them so they could figure out their tithing. Saddest part of the lesson was a young girl struggling to figure it out and saying "I can do it on paper, but I can't do it in real life." I wanted to shout, real life is the only place it matters! Thank you for your curriculum suggestions. It really sums up what I want my own children to learn.

Deborah said...

I don't know Tom. I have been working with computers for well over 13 years now and I still feel like I don't know anything about them:)

Momma Jorje said...

Home and Auto Maintenance would be SO GREAT to know! And Home Ec, more than the 1 year I took it (not core, elective)... because it does teach so much more than just cooking, at least it could. Gardening would be great, too! Give kids the confidence in it to do it at home and you may actually help families while kids are still in school, too!

Anonymous said...

I'am an Early childhood teacher and have found Technology to be a powerful learning tool that can engage children and enhance their learning. I always make integrating technology meaningful and find the multiple communication possibilities exciting. I found some fantastic resources that describe effective uses of technology and give me some great ideas to use with my children
Technology is a tool not a subject that enhances children critical thinking, communication, reasoning, problem solving, reflecting and questioning skills.These skills are valuable in any other subject, such as the ones that everyone has been discussing.

Shellee said...

I would definitely go to that Middle/High School! And my kids would too. At three and six they're already working the computer, so that would be a wasted class. :)

Anonymous said...

Along the lines of seeing many gardens everywhere..I would like to see an updated version of an etiquette class where manners and gestures of grace are taught. We have a little of this embedded into sharing meals at the school I teach. But like your theme, after 13 years of schooling we could be living in a world with more kind adults.

Mag said...

I am 34 years old and still struggle with most of these things. Okay, all of them. The only thing I don't struggle with is cooking, but that's mostly because I have found it immensely rewarding to learn to cook over the past 16 or so years. When I got married, I'd sometimes burn water.

If these things were part of the core curriculum in schools, we would raise a generation of amazingly functional people. I get paranoid sometimes that this is the exact reason these things are not taught.

Jennifer Sneeden, Boca Raton Therapist said...

It appears your wife is just as brilliant as you are! Great list, thanks for sharing.

SwingMamma said...

I'd love to see dance in mainstream school curriculum. It encourages the use of both hemisphere's of the brain. It develops gross motor skills and coordination as well as creativity. Of course I am rather biased as I am a dance teacher. But having taught Swing Dance to hundreds of Teens over the years it's always amazing to see the social development in this age group and the way it brings so many different "types" of teens together. Dance is a powerful teacher.

Tamsyn Spackman said...

I love your list overall, but I would be remiss if I didn't point out that our country is a republic, not a democracy.

Teacher Tom said...

@Tamsyn . . . True. Ancient Athenians attempted to govern themselves through direct democracy, a form in which there is a danger that the will of the majority will trample the rights of a minority. Our founders were, of course, aware of this potential for "tyranny of the majority" and so when choosing what form of government to embody in our Constitution, they went with a republic in which representatives are elected democratically. In other words, instead of government directly controlled by the people, it is indirectly controlled: what dictionaries at the time defined as a "representative democracy." Encyclopedias have been written, and will continue to be written, discussing the nuances of the republic vs. democracy debate, one that I'd rather not engage in here on the blog, except to say that however you define our form of government, we are, together, attempting to self-govern with democracy as the centerpiece, and that, as it has been from the onset, is a grand experiment.