Public education has 13 years to turn a kindergartener into a functioning adult. From a comprehensive, well-rounded academic base to a fundamental understanding of social skills and norms, the curriculum must cover all aspects of basic functionality.
The current model focuses on social skills in elementary school, introducing academic intensity only in high school. However, this neglects young kids’ huge capacity for information retention, as well as the fact that practical skills, which become necessary closer to graduation, often don’t fit into the high school curriculum.
Increasing academic rigor in elementary school would deliver information to students when they are most receptive to it; without the pressure of grades, education at this levelcan be intensive without being stressful. This would leave space in later years to apply the early-acquired knowledge base to real-world situations, develop independence and learn crucial real-world skills.
Conversely, because the current model restricts academic intensity to high school, these years have become notoriously stressful. Students are pressured to meet both personal and societal standards, which can be disastrous during the formative teen years. One in five U.S. teens will struggle with a mental health disorder. “School has sometimes felt unpleasant, bureaucratic and almost like punishment,” said Lydia McCarthy, a junior at Boston Latin School. “Sometimes it's easy to forget that you're there to gain knowledge and improve yourself as a young person.”
Ms. Marcela Ahlberg, my fifth-grade teacher, listened as I brought up facts about younger students’ potential (the average 8-year-oldcan learn an astounding12 words a day) and the doubt of older ones (over half of high schoolers feel unprepared for the future). “I agree with almost everything you said,” she admitted, “but I don’t think the switch is a good idea.”
Ahlberg’s hesitancy is consistent with uncertainties in recent research. For every study about children’s academic potential, there’s another that claims that neglecting social skills sets them up for failure.
However, it’s clear that as students travel through the academic system toward high school graduation, they become increasingly anxious about their ability to function in the real world—concerning, considering 18-year-olds make decisions that affect their lives for decades.
“I always thought that school would teach you everything you need to know to become a functioning adult, but at this point it feels like all I’m ever gonna learn is how to use the quadratic formula to graph things...School hasn’t prepared me for the outside world in the sense that, once you graduate, you realize the world is nothing like you thought it was,” says Saff Coker, a Noble and Greenough School sophomore.
It’s clear that something must change. Laying off life skills in younger years might be difficult; kids don’t always make the right decision. But more flexibility in high school would ensure that high school students would feel more comfortable making and fixing their own mistakes. Instead of teacher-driven activities, students could spend time on real-world projects, which would allow them to reinforce their knowledge, learn practical skills, explore topics they’re interested in and learn in an interdisciplinary way. Teachers could give more individualized attention; in underfunded schools, a high student-to-teacher ratio often means kids don’t get the help they need.
Restructuring education in this way would require reexamining the student-teacher dynamic, as well as what is necessary to teach; but it might do significantly better than our current system in preparing students for the real world.
Ahlberg sums it up: “Kids need to know that somebody sees them. They want to be seen.”
A system that allows for flexibility in the classroom will let kids be seen. A system that doesn’t teach social skills as blocks of information for memorization will let kids be seen. And a system that lets kids use their knowledge to change the world around them will let kids see.