I’ve watched teenagers struggle with the most amazing things in high school and college. Their heads are crammed with Dickens and trigonometry but they can’t make a phone call or cook a meal. Nobody should graduate high school without knowing this stuff. So here are ten things we should teach in school and three things we could squeeze out of the curriculum to make room for them, plus a few bonus skills that teenagers should learn at home.
1 How to write clearly in 21st Century formats
Naturally, this is top of my list. A modern office worker needs to know how to write emails, how to blog, how to use a professional social network like Slack, and how to write and deliver a presentation. Even if you’re a construction worker or a medical assistant, these are skills you’ll need at some point in your life. This is what we should be teaching and practicing in writing classes, not the dreaded and useless 5-paragraph essay.
2 How to evaluate facts
Google and Wikipedia are tools, not sources of truth; they’re dangerous unless you know how to use them and evaluate the results carefully. I gave my younger kid an assignment to find out some facts, then we had a discussion about which sources you could trust, which you couldn’t, and how to tell the difference. Every school should be teaching this, and until they do, every parent should, as well. This is how you vaccinate your child against fake news; as a society, it’s our only real protection against the social spread of ignorance and falsehood.
3 How to make a phone call
Do you have teenagers? Are they terrified to make a phone call? As absurd as this seems to my generation, which spent its teen years blabbing on the phone, there is apparently a plague of telephone phobia afflcting Gen Z. (They’re much more comfortable with text messages, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, Instagram, and other environments where you can respond at your own pace in text, emojis, and pictures.) But you can’t succeed in life unless you can call the electric company and straighten out a billing problem, or call in sick to your job. Teens should learn to prepare for a call with a short list of things to ask about or accomplish, and to think a moment about questions the caller is asking — and how to interrupt when the other party is going in a direction that’s not useful. They should then practice by calling each other, and by calling their state representatives, town hall, or librarians.
4 How to promote yourself
Today’s young people are far more likely than previous generations to be independent contractors (videographers, Uber drivers, coders, carpenters) or to have a side hustle. Independent contractors need to be found. So they need the skills to describe themselves on freelance sites, build a simple website, create pages on Facebook, blog, tweet, make videos, or otherwise tell the world who they are what they do. While this generation is better at such things than the ones that came before, they’ll need to develop those skills to compete in the gig economy.
5 How to interact in an office setting
You’re going to have to work in an office at some point. That means showing up on time, interacting with your boss and coworkers, using email, and making conversation. It also means interacting professionally with people of other genders without harassing them or making a fool of yourself. When my oldest worked in my office for a stint, he commented to me, “I feel like I’m pretending to know what to do and everyone else already knows.” I said, “Actually, we’re all just pretending.” The point is to learn how to play the game. Anyone giving short courses on office etiquette?
6 How money and investments work
You’ll be getting a paycheck, hopefully. The government is going to take part of it. You’re going to have to pay rent and file tax returns and budget. You need to know that bitcoin is not a safe investment, and how to think about investing in general. Interest rates (both accrued and paid), the time value of money, and investment risk/return are concepts that every adult should understand, whether in the context of student loans or investing. Math classes should feature more about this and less about the law of sines.
7 What statistics mean
If I tell you that 78% of Democrats want to burn down the capitol, should you believe me? Would it change your mind if you learned that the sample was seven people who live in my dorm? Every student needs a grounding in statistics, so they can evaluate claims they read in the paper, polls, and other official-sounding statistics. This knowledge will be useful for most students for all of their lives, where Algebra 2 will not. And there are masses of material to work with on news sites every day.
8 How to discuss politics and vote intelligently
This is a skill we’ve lost: the ability to listen to and evaluate arguments that differ from your own. Facebook in particular seems to encourage more name-calling than understanding. Where we are now teaching history, we should spend more time on how to evaluate a political argument, how to disagree respectfully, and how to bring facts to bear in an argument.
9 How nutrition works
Teenagers are often learning food habits that will destroy their health as they become more mature. There should be room for wellness and nutrition in the science and health curriculum. This includes how sugar stimulates hunger, why fiber is important, being in touch with when you are hungry, social pressures around eating, wise choices when eating out, and the role of exercise and activity. An investment in this now will pay off in a healthier pool of citizens later.
10 How to operate a fax machine
Just kidding. You only need to know this if you work in a doctor’s office.
Three things we could spend less time teaching
Where is the room in the curriculum for these topics? Easy. Cut back on the stuff we don’t need.
- Stop teaching Algebra 2 and Trigonometry. As much as I love math, I don’t see the relevance of these topics for students who aren’t going into science or engineering. Replace them with probability, statistics, and finance and you’ll have done students an enormous service for their futures.
- Teach current politics more than history. According to my kids, the history curriculum tends to stop after World War II, just as it always has — there’s just no time to get to current events. But the current reality sprang from the decisions of presidents like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. You cannot evaluate the challenges we’re having with President Trump outside of the context of Nixon’s resignation and Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Race, global warming, Islamism, and the nuclear showdown with North Korea are impossible to evaluate without the context of the 60s, the 80s, and the 00s. So teach less about Teddy Roosevelt and more about dictatorships, nationalism, and liberalism in the modern world.
- Spend far less time on English Literature. Literature, like history, is part of our shared heritage. But students read way too much fiction, which most of them are never going to write. Study creative nonfiction. Learn to do research and write articles like a journalist. Non-fiction writing skills are far more relevant than Dickens and Austen.
Things teenagers should learn at home: relationships, cooking, and laundry.
Here are some other things young adults need to know that they probably can’t learn at school:
- How relationships work. What is reasonable to expect from your partner? How will you communicate? How will you discuss and work out problems? How does sex start, and what should partners expect from each other? Porn and sitcoms are poor teachers here. Teenagers must learn about these topics by speaking with and observing their parents — that’s awkward, but not as bad as failing to discuss it. And if you think your home situation isn’t a great one to emulate, perhaps it’s worth exposing your teens to other people’s families.
- How to cook. If you go to college and you don’t know how to cook an egg, steam some broccoli, or make a batch of pasta, you’re going to be a very sad adult.
- How to do laundry. My oldest tells me that when he got to school he was amazed at the freshmen who didn’t know how to use laundry machines properly. My kids have been washing their own clothes since puberty.
- How to pump gas. Yes, you can do it.
- How plumbing and electrical stuff works. You have circuit breakers. You have water cutoff valves. Learn how to use them.
I’m sure there’s a lot more, as you’ll tell me in the comments. But these are a good start.