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It’s time to reassess what we teach kids in school

Zoe Weil is a blogger for Psychology Today, and we share her blog posts here. The following post is excerpted from the upcoming second edition of The World Becomes What We Teach

What should we teach students in school? Given the realities of globalization, constantly evolving technologies, rapidly shifting job opportunities, and a planet in peril from climate change, it’s important to re-evaluate the body of knowledge and skill sets that we require children to obtain.

It helps to come to this task with a beginner’s eyes, unfettered by attachments to traditional subjects, content areas, and skill development, and to ask ourselves this question: With limited hours in the day, and in a world where information about virtually anything and everything is readily available, what essential knowledge and skills should students acquire and why?

The answer to this question should change over time. Skill sets that were once valuable may not be essential in today’s world, while other skill sets are now vital. Content knowledge that is important today may be eclipsed by other content knowledge in the coming decades. This is why transferable skills, understandings, and habits of mind are so critical, and why memorizing specific facts has become largely outdated.

A thought experiment quickly reinforces the problem of primarily focusing on content at all. Consider which of the following you believe are subjects that all children should study in the U.S., recognizing, of course, that the myriad subtopics under these general subject headings should evoke the same question:

biology; chemistry; physics; ecology and environmental science; geology; botany; nutrition; mycology; astronomy; neuroscience; ethology and zoology; oceanography and marine science; climate science and climate change; engineering; computer science and technologies; ancient history; U.S. history, governance, and civics; history of other continents, regions, and nations; history of colonization; history of indigenous peoples; history of war, peace, and nonviolent movements; history of caste, slavery, racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other manifestations of prejudice and oppression; heroic leaders and change agents throughout history; inventions that changed history; overview of human history from the beginning of time to the present; art history; geography and its impacts on cultures; world religions; geometry; algebra; calculus and trigonometry; statistics and probability; anthropology; archeology; psychology; sociology; money and economics; social entrepreneurship; American and English literature; drama; mythology; visual arts; poetry; music; world languages; world literature in translation; the classics; philosophy; logic and epistemology; movements for justice and rights; media, disinformation, and conspiracy theories; physical and mental health; the true cost of our product, food, and clothing choices; sustainable and ethical living in a globalized world

What did you find yourself thinking and feeling as you read this list? My hope is that you felt confused and uncertain, perhaps overwhelmed, and that this long (and by no means exhaustive) list called into question the basic subject categories that we currently teach in U.S. schools. I also hope you found yourself wondering why we teach what we teach.

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