On teaching important life skills in high school

A student at Libertyville High School in Chicago’s north suburbs wondered last month, in Drops of Ink, the student newspaper, whether the subjects students learn were the really important life skills.


A few different martial arts

For example, try to impress a girl with your knowledge of different cloud types: “You know, those are cirrus clouds, not cumulonimbus, as you might think,” you could hypothetically say, pointing up to a few wisps of white in the sky. “They may also form in the upper troposphere.”

A real head-turner, don’t you think?

In elementary and middle school science classes across America, students often learn the different types of clouds using a chart similar to the one on the right. I couldn’t find a cloud chart I could use, so I found one that identifies a few different forms of martial arts.

The question is, Would learning about martial arts be any more useful to students than learning to identify different cloud types?

Or more to the point, as staff writer Demi Glusic asks, How many students would be able to function if all their technology went dead? Or how many know how to run a backup generator in their house if the power goes out when they’re home alone?

“I will take a wild stab in the dark and say hardly any,” she answers.

But go ahead and get some potatoes from Costco and make a potato battery to run the house, as you learned in third grade.

Speaking of martial arts, when it comes to defending ourselves against an attacker, she said she would prefer a lesson on how to do a good ninja kick, rather than all those years of learning about cloud types, the stages of photosynthesis, or anything else that would apply only in very narrowly focused careers in students’ futures.

On a national scale, this is a bigger problem than Ms Glusic lets on. According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, about one in four US students drop out before they finish high school. Why do you think that is?

For many students, they realize all the subjects they’re studying don’t make them happy, and if something doesn’t make them happy, what’s the point? So they quit, seeing the entire high school experience as a path to nowhere.

In some schools, especially those without student creative, social, or athletic groups and support for those groups, the dropout rate is even higher.

How can we make the dropout number lower? Ms Glusic writes from a high school where the graduation rate is north of the 98-percent mark. But students at other schools aren’t so lucky. And if even she wonders about it, she’s not alone.

Beyond finding something at school that motivates students, like fun or important life skills, there’s also the need to ask what students get out of school. Is what they’re learning tied directly to an interesting job?

“Teenagers, like adults, are motivated by the chance to prove their mastery of a subject or skill—and move on,” writes Amanda Ripley, a journalist, an Emerson fellow, and the author of The Smartest Kids in the World—and How They Got That Way, in the New York Times.

Sooner or later, high schools will figure out how to tie mastery of a subject or skill to the “moving on” part, she says. In other words, they’ll make the connection between teaching school subjects and students’ life after high school. Then, kids’ll be in school every day.

Teach them about clouds instead of how to execute a good Ninja kick, and set them up for rejection by a girl they have a crush on. C’mon, we can figure this out.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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