Time for a New Core Curriculum

Mon 15 November 2010 | -- (permalink)

There are some things that schools and colleges really focus on that I just don't think are very relevant anymore. There are other things that kids really need to know, but that are only taught as electives if they're taught at all.

  • Less useful: Cursive writing. You don't need to know this anymore. It is far more important that you know how to type. Yet typing is taught much later and with a lot less time devoted to it.
  • Less useful: Shop classes. When the most common post-school career was to go work in a factory somewhere, it made a lot of sense for schools to emphasize shop classes. My high school had separate classes for both wood and metal shop. The only "computers" class they had actually consisted of working through some painfully basic tutorials on how to use spreadsheets. (They used Quattro Pro). I can't remember how, but I managed to drop the class and weasel into getting the credit hours some other way. I think the policy has changed since then and the school now offers Java classes and an AP prep class in computer science. It's a start.
  • Less useful: Foreign languages. This one's kind of a sacred cow. I know lots of people will think "We really need students to learn a foreign language so they can learn new ways of thinking and be able to interact with the rest of the world." Phooey. The rest of the world is learning English as fast as they can for this very reason. High school and college foreign language requirements usually go one of two ways in my experience: 1) the student takes a language that they already know (often Spanish) and breezes through the classes, or 2) the student picks a romantic-sounding but increasingly-irrelevant language like Russian or French, spends a couple years learning how to ask where the bathroom is, and then forgets it soon after leaving college.
  • More useful: HTML. A couple weeks back I had to write a painstakingly-detailed tutorial on how to create HTML hyperlinks for someone at work who had never done it before. I consider this basic literacy these days. You don't need to know a bunch of fancy HTML and make complete page layouts, but everyone should know enough to be able to write a blog post. This should be taught in elementary school.
  • More useful: Statistics. We are surrounded by more and more data every day. Yesterday I went to the SF Bay ACM's Data Mining Camp. I was struck by how many of the attendees were from India, Russia, and a smattering of other foreign countries. Probably half the attendees were not US natives. This says to me that there's a big demand for these skills, and that the US is just not meeting it.
  • More useful: Graphic/UI Design. It takes a special kind of person to be able to design something attractive and then also know enough geekery to make it interactive and useful. There was a time about 10 years ago when I thought graphic design was a "wishful thinking" major, with a lot more people going into it than there were jobs available. Maybe that's still true of print design, but in the tech world there's a desperate need for these skills.
  • Less useful: Law. The legal economy shrank even more than the economy as a whole in the recent downturn. The traditional view of the law as one of the distinguished, learned professions is woefully out of date. Law school teaches very little that is of practical value in a legal career. All law students bring on roughly the same debt, but only a small proportion of lawyers from the top schools will earn big law firm money. Also, watch this.
  • More useful: Accounting. Whether just for personal use, or because you're starting a small business, or because you want to work for an accounting firm, I think everyone should have at least one accounting class in high school or college. You will use this.

Check out the current graduation requirements from my high school.