Half-Baked Policies: An Improved High School Curriculum
In my four-year career as a private tutor, I've made a habit of taking on any potential clients that request my services. Regardless of their academic level or their proficiency in the subject, I accommodate them for at least a few sessions. As of a few months ago, there is one notable exception: geometry. I've stopped taking on geometry students entirely, and the two geometry students I currently work with are only a couple months away from moving on.
There's a reason that I avoid the pleas of helpless students and desperate parents when it comes to geometry. It's a useless subject. Naturally, I enjoy teaching subjects that I think I'm good at, but I also don't mind teaching other subjects that as long as I think they're useful. Having worked with four geometry students over the past year, I'm undoubtedly excellent at it, but all those hours have only solidified my belief that it's one of the biggest wastes of time in secondary education.
There are approximately four useful things in geometry. Special types of angles, interior and exterior angles of a polygon, the laws of sines and cosines, and the formulas for a circle. You could probably teach those things in a couple of weeks, and even that's unnecessary because all of these things are covered in other math classes. I can confidently say that I haven't used a single concept outside of those four in my whole life. Who cares about the orthocenter of a triangle, or whether two triangles are congruent?
Geometry is a perfect case study of all the useless things that we make kids learn in high school, a microcosm of the rigidity of government-mandated curricula. After all, the reason that geometry is supposedly so important is that you need it to learn trigonometry which you need to learn calculus (wrong), and that it promotes critical thinking and enhances visualization skills (fake news). I would argue that not only does geometry fail at all of those, but also discourages students from enjoying math because they recognize the inanity of what they're doing. Things like geometry don't deserve an entire semester, let alone an entire year. Think of all the hours that are wasted in these students' lives when they're still somewhat close to peak retention ability.
Here's what it should look like:
And here's how we got there.
Foreign Language – Currently, two years of a foreign language are required, and three are highly recommended. Increase the requirement to three years. Also require that Spanish teachers cannot be native Spanish speakers – if you had to make an effort to learn the language and its rules (as opposed to learning it solely through speech, as you do your native language), you're better equipped to communicate those rules to others. Before taking a foreign language – or perhaps in the first month of the Level 1 course – students must pass an English-language grammar exam that covers things like tense. Oh, and students who are native speakers would be required to take another language. No more easy A's for you.
Economics – Perhaps the class with the most wasted potential, economics is a subject that everyone will use throughout their lives. Why spend classes talking about how to calculate unnecessary metrics like price elasticity of demand, when you could instead focus on fiscal policy, budget deficits, the role of government, foreign trade, and inflation? There should absolutely be a unit devoted to personal finance, including topics like credit, insurance, budgeting, saving, investing, and doing your taxes.
Civics – This should be introduced in Freshman year and taken once again at the end of Senior year. The first one should be in context of civic engagement, how to volunteer, and how to stay informed. The second one should be along the lines of an AP Government
Public Speaking – It's criminal that this isn't even lightly emphasized in the current curriculum. The only speaking experience most high school graduates will have is narrating their Snap story. This would be a completely standalone, compulsory class.
Statistics – This should 100% be a mandatory class. Everyone deals with information, data, and numbers in some form, and statistics provides a framework for bulk data analysis, especially when it comes to understanding trends. It would be taught primarily via Excel, because the term 'Excel monkey' is widely used for people entering the workforce. And if there's time, topics like Game Theory and Negotiation can be worked in.
Coding – Obviously. This could possibly be introduced with a unit on Logic (with music by Logic), specifically outside of a coding context.
Media Literacy – I complained about this on the Coming Soon podcast in relation to the recent Cambridge Analytica story, but talk about a useful skill that a lot of people don't have. This could be its own course, or could be folded into an English class.
Study Skills – This seems like it's abstract, but it could be the first class in high school (or the last one in middle school). Most people don't even know how to effectively take notes, let alone memorize properly. Even college students just write down everything the professor writes. They even highlight the same things the professor highlights!
Professional Development – This would focus on things like branding, cover letters, and resumes, and interviewing. Some people still think that Comic Sans is a font you can use when you want to be taken seriously. Let's fix that.
Social Psychology – There are a number of interesting studies that come out every month from thinktanks and other organizations in the form of whitepapers, most of which merit a deep dive.
Survival – This could be a Physical Education-adjacent course that has a 'man of the woods' feel (no, not the Justin Timberlake kind). Any 18-year old should know how to start a fire (and use a fire extinguisher), make meals without full facilities (or too many supplies), orient yourself spatially (without Google Maps), and perform CPR (plus other EMT responsibilities). Most importantly, it would teach basic self-defense techniques, and not just the shitty blocks that you learn in yellow-belt Taekwondo.
Nutrition – We used to have a food pyramid which recommended six servings of grains every day! Six! That means you could have eaten six boiled potatoes, and that would have been okay! How was this possible? How was no one fired because of this?
Graphic Design – While we're still on the damn food pyramid, did you know they replaced it with a vertically-split pyramid? The whole point of the geometry pyramid is that the big things are on the bottom and the small things are on the top – splitting it vertically defeats that entirely. Also this one is actually a pyramid because it's three-dimensional (I guess 'food triangle' wasn't quite as catchy), only because there's someone climbing up the side to show exercise. I hope someone was sent to jail after this one.
World History – I remember the first history class I ever took. It was in 7th grade, and my (as I would soon find out) exceptionally bad history teacher started the first class by explaining why she thought history was important. I thought that was weird because none of my other teachers felt the need to justify their mere existence as some kind of reassurance before actually teaching the material. There are concrete, tangible reasons to learn world history, including understanding motivations and trends, developing exposition and writing abilities, and contextualize things that happen in daily life. But that's not how history is taught. History is taught in discrete levels as opposed to a continuous narrative, as an encyclopedia of information instead of a novel with motivations and interconnectedness, with too much emphasis on people instead of movements. We all know George Washington as a military commander and the first president, but most wouldn't be able to explain why he was the first president, what he did and didn't believe in, and what he actually did during his presidency. We know that Hitler killed a lot of people and singlehandedly started a war, but we don't fully understand the economic and social repercussions of that war.
Here are the quick fixes. Nothing before the year 1500 is relevant for any reason. From Medieval Europe to Attila the Hun to the Bronze Age, Byzantine Empire, no one cares. Everything after 1900 is incredibly relevant, including the economics of the Great Depression and the politics of the Cold War. Understanding other countries' actions after 1975 is crucial. There should be a drive to learn about what's going on in this and other countries – not just who started them.
English – In its current form, English is not useful. Every year, you read a few books, do a couple presentations, and move on. Not only is assigning reading an inherently lazy form of teaching, it doesn't accomplish that much. Instilling a love or appreciation of reading is a responsibility left to elementary school teachers. If someone's the type to read the cliff notes by the time they reach high school, it's unlikely that the right choice of book will once again motivate them to read. English should be a highly specialized class every year – even having a class called 'English' shows how vaguely defined the subject is. Ideally, English classes would be things like Creative Writing, Investigative Journalism, Writing Science, Contemporary Drama, and so on. Students don't have to read books that are considered classics, because classics can be really damn boring (see: The Old Man and the Sea, Of Mice and Men, The Crucible). It should actually be encouraged that they read shorter excerpts or selections from books from which actual educational value can be extracted (see: chapter 1 of The Metamorphosis).
Geometry – good riddance.