What we really should be teaching: statistics, science, math, media, code

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The pandemic and our elections have revealed America’s weak spot: ignorance. Too many in the populace can’t reason, can’t think straight, can’t differentiate opinion from reality, can’t identify bias, and have no context for what they consume.

“This is a consequence of the poor education system in our country.” That is the applause line. But that’s wrong. If we did the best possible job teaching what we currently teach, we’d still have a population that would be susceptible to ignorance and demagogy. The problem isn’t just how we teach, it’s what we teach.

The result is Americans who make poor decisions. They can’t understand why scientific “truth” shifts from month to month, but science works. They can’t understand what an inflation rate is and how mortgages work. They don’t recognize that six blood clots in 6 million people is a tiny risk compared to 500,000 dead people and COVID infections with a 2% mortality rate. They lack the historical context to understand race in America. They don’t know what the rise of fascism looks like, or what socialism actually means.

I’m restarting from first principles. I’m imagining a curriculum whose primary goal is to teach Americans to function as intelligent members of society who make decisions about themselves and their community. If you imagined an educated adult, what would they need to know?

Here’s the new curriculum. Please implement as soon as possible, as broadly as possible.

Modern History

I was shocked to learn that the teaching of American History in high schools typically stops after World War II — just as it did when I was learning it in the 1970s. Citizens need the context of the last 60 years. So cut back the teaching of American History 1800-1930 (except the Civil War) and replace a lot of it with this:

Civil rights and race in America. Undeclared wars and war powers. Protest movements. Geopolitics. Feminism and the sexual revolution. Economic theories: globalism vs. nativism. Capital flows and politics. Electoral politics and messaging. History of the Democratic and Republican parties and coalitions. Geographic trends: red and blue states. The development of urban, suburban, and rural American and its effect on politics.

How Science Works

Too much of science is taught as a series of facts. Here is the Krebs cycle. Here is how a heart works. This is what acids and bases are. This is the law of gravitation. In place of this, we need people to understand better how science works, and how they can use science in their daily lives.

The scientific method. History of science — how theories changed over time. Science and medicine. The mechanics of peer review. Statistical significance and publication bias. Environmental science and climate changes. Practical science of nutrition. Evaluating a scientific study. Social science and the replicability crisis. Science journalism and scientific truth. The intersection of science, politics, and funding.

Statistics, Probability, and Financial Math

We should stop teaching much of algebra and calculus except to students who plan to go into science or engineering. Students ask “Will I ever use this in my life?” and they are right. Instead, students should learn the basics of probability, statistics, and financial math.

How probability works. The mathematics of risk. Practical examples of risk calculations in everyday life. Statistics: distributions, samples, predictions, and significance. How to design a study — and how to evaluate one. Statistical fallacies. Small sample sizes and low population incidences — how to interpret results. Financial math including installment loans and mortgages, growth rates, inflation, investment returns and risks, and lotteries. Understanding taxes and tax rates. Basics of macroeconomics.

Writing, Reading, and Researching

The way we teach writing and English is terrible. The focus on literature has cultural relevance, but it’s way overdone. Instead, we must focus on teaching people how to read — critically — and how to write clearly to accomplish a goal.

How to search. The limits of Google. What is a credible source — and why? Critical reading and critical thinking. Logical fallacies. How to construct an argument — and how to critique one. The central role of storytelling. Writing opinions. Analytical writing. Writing instructions. Writing to persuade. Marketing writing. Writing emails. Writing reports. Giving a talk.

Coding

Just as everyone needs to write, whether or not they will be a writer in their job, everyone needs to understand how computers work at a basic level. This means understanding the logic of coding, and the limitations of computers. One class is sufficient.

The logic of computers. Variables and types. Strings. How interfaces work. The basics of design. Subroutines. Building a larger project. Debugging.

What now?

Let’s be honest. I’m no educator. It’s easy for me to write this stuff and leave it to others.

But our educational system is out of touch. We don’t teach people what they need to know. The result is that they make poor decisions — about candidates, about their lives, and about public health.

In a democracy, an educated electorate is essential, not just to productivity, but to avoiding driving down the wrong path.

Who wants to create this curriculum? Who wants to implement it? We have to start somewhere.

14 responses to “What we really should be teaching: statistics, science, math, media, code

  1. I agree with nearly all your points. Overall, we need to teach critical thinking skills. People need to understand how to approach knowledge and decision making.

  2. You hit it out of the park with this one. The Arts I think are a critical omission here: along with their own value they encourage empathy, something else we might want to teach. But yes, the ability not just to think, but to reason.

  3. Yesterday and today’s articles have been very on point with the thoughts I’ve had running around in my brain. My kids have been doing school virtually this year which has allowed my a peek into their education. Both of my kids are in schools that are considered highly ranked and academically talented. However, the curriculum and testing are just accelerated, not different. You are correct – we need to overhaul the curriculum. We are not preparing them for the world that they will be living and working in.
    Can tomorrow’s blog be on the over reliance on standardized testing and what it is doing to our children?

  4. In 2006, I interviewed at one of the big professional-services firms. My interviewer asked, “What would you say is the number one problem facing the country?”
    “Innumeracy,” I replied. “The inability to think clearly about statistics, probability, and risk. It les to unsound, uneconomical policies.”
    I was rejected. But mostly because I was a poor fit.

  5. I’m surprised your blog did not reference English (as a first language!), other languages, literature, political science (social studies), philosophy, history, the arts, psychology…. Some forty years ago, when we not only abandoned but began to denigrate a liberal arts curriculum, we set our current course; a narrow focus on job-based, “educational” curricula and the loss of critical thinking.

  6. Loved this post. I agree with Sean D. that the arts need to be included because they are all important forms of self-expression. However, instead of teaching less algebra and calculus, begin teaching it in first grade at a level that young children can understand. Currently, we’re taught “regular” math, and algebra is sprung upon us in sixth grade. The change in approach to numbers was overwhelming for someone like me who didn’t “math” naturally. I have a history degree and value how it taught me to reason and consume information. I feel I missed an opportunity to learn a different approach to information because of my lack of math knowledge.

    After we fix elementary through undergrad education, let’s start on medical school next.

  7. Wish I’d had Heather Cox Richardson, John Meacham, and Doris Kernes Goodwin teach me history, instead of the “memorize the dates of wars” teachers I had back then.

  8. As a retired educator of 33 years experience in both the classroom and administration, I hope you are not suggesting a curriculum without an arts or physical education program. If you are, I would certainly like to know on what basis you came to such a decision.

  9. My British-born and bred husband (now 96 years old) was in the RAF during and after the end of the war. In 1953 he emigrated to Canada travelling via USA, and on his first day there was shocked by an American woman who asked him, “What does it feel like to be in a free country for the first time?”
    He had a hard time controlling his emotions!

  10. There’s certainly a lot wrong with American education, but while I think it would be great for people to be able to study those topics in public schools, I doubt it will solve any of our problems of “ignorance”

    To start, human beings, even educated ones, are terrible at evaluating risk. We also cannot, on a fundamental level, perceive or comprehend exponential change. For reference I recommend Kahneman and Tversky’s work on behavioral choice. Also look up “prospect theory.” Essentially it has been established that you can’t educate away certain errors of risk judgment.

    But probably more important than our capacity to think critically is our desire. This country isn’t suffering from stupid, it’s suffering from despair and distrust. To quote a very wise woman, “You can use logic to justify almost anything. That’s its power. And its flaw.”

    Our real problem is people using the critical thinking powers they already have to justify the world they want. Better education is good because education is a human right, but it definitely won’t solve our problems.

  11. There is much more than the curriculum wrong with education. Bigger is that it is overly bureaucratic and unionized.

    My child has regular complaints about teachers on things that most private sector employees wouldn’t get away with. Likewise, I’m sure teachers don’t feel empowered or supported to deal appropriately with problem students.

    So, even if we constructed a “better” curriculum, fat chance getting it implemented.

    Education is long overdue for a major change. If I were to suggest a different priority, it would be robust school choice to compete with public schools. This would give us a better chance at realizing that curriculum.

  12. Josh, the problem isn’t with ignorance, a lack of knowledge, or an inability to think critically. The problem lies with how we each interpret things and our own subjectivity or lack of objectivity. For example, whether its 6 blood clots or 60 out of 6 million recipients is statistically low, but if you are one of those with the blood clot your outlook on taking experimental vaccines has probably altered for the worse. Another example is the 2% mortality rate. Some see that as high enough to warrant vaccines others see the same data and will say, “97-98% recovery without a vaccine. If I am not at high risk why should I take this?” Its all about our pre-conceived notions, pre-existing prejudices, personal perspectives/outlooks when looking at data or any information. There’s a conversation happening about the need for more people of color, especially African-Americans to be involved with the development of A.I. because how data is interpret is as important as the data itself.

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