Leave the Right Things to Chance

No child left behind…

Pythagoras. The various uses of crude oil. How and in which order Henry VIII’s wives died…

When it comes to ensuring that no child gets left behind, these are the things that school deems just too damned important to leave to chance.

On the other hand…

Managing your money. Coping with stress. Understanding the people in your life and why they do what they do. Finding a career that enriches both you and the world. How to know when you’re being lied to by politicians and advertisers.

This stuff goes on the “I guess we’ll just let ’em figure that stuff out by themselves, yeah?” pile.

Start with the things that don’t change

The point of school is to prepare young people for their future. And what a noble thing to aim for. But how to decide what to teach? There are three things that make that decision tricky.

One is that the future is unknown – it’s hard to know exactly what will be useful moving forward. Two is that everyone is different – we are born with unique temperaments and natural abilities and learning styles. And three is that even if we knew exactly what would be useful, we do not have the resources to give each student individualised attention based on exactly what they need.

So educators came up with a solution. They said “Let’s just guess what will help the average student, and then let’s hold all students to these arbitrary standards we’ve just made up with no basis in reality. Let’s not include anything explicitly useful to their adult life, but instead let’s fill them to the brim with fear and anxiety over how well they can memorise trivia.”

I have a different proposition.

It is impossible to know what will be useful in the future. And everyone is different. And even if we knew what would be useful, we don’t have the resources to give every student individual attention.

Fine. That’s the lay of the land.

So in the face of all the things we don’t know, and all the things we can’t do, then why not let’s start with… oh, I don’t know… the things that every single human being in recorded history has had to deal with?

Flip it on its head. Instead of worrying about how it’s impossible to know what will be useful in the future, think about what has always been useful. And instead of worrying about how every student is different, think about the ways in which they are the same.

It’s really not a mystery – some things don’t change. We are born. We die. We interact with people. We work. We deal with money. That’s called ‘life’ – it hasn’t changed for thousands of years and it isn’t about to.

I’m not suggesting for a second that everything taught at school is trivial and irrelevant, or that we should do away with it all. No. Only that we should rethink what goes into the curiculum first, and what gets brought in next if there’s still time left over.

Some things have to be left to chance – life is short. I just think we’re picking from the wrong pile.

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