What are the ONLY 3 subjects that should be taught in school? (Reinspired by COVID-19 Enforced Homeschooling)

Having drafted this a few years ago based on my observations, I thought that I would find an appropriate time to share my opinion and findings on education. With two children in my house, now being taught by their mum with communication with the school teachers via web platforms and the mass backlash from parents across the country struggling themselves to understand both the meaning and relevance of “fronted adverbials”, I thought this was an appropriate time.

Having long been an advocate of education over training (more on that later), the sudden change in all interactions has caused people worldwide to reassess almost everything that we do. Not least how we work (look at Zoom’s share price) but also in how we school our children. Pioneers such as Sir Ken Robinson have directly and fervently advocated to reform (if not complete revolution) of the education system and thought leaders such as Simon Sinek have challenged the way that we approach development and learning in the abstract. But why do we need such a change and how can we do it?

The New York Times published an article in December 1985 that contained the following:

Fast-forward ten years and an article published in Newsweek stated:

So what’s the point? There are fundamental flaws in how our education systems work and key reasons why it isn’t relevant to serving the needs of the majority of those who go through it, so I’d like to highlight four.

  1. We aren’t educating; we are training – students don’t go through the school system with the best level of education in a holistic way. They are pumped through a system that readies them for employment. This may sound like a good thing. After all we all need to work and earn money so if the school system is designed for that then we are in a good position. No? Well, lets examine that a little bit. Without going into too much details I’m sure there are things you learned in school that have no (direct) relevance to your everyday life – quadratic equations anybody? That’s because being put through the system to be employable isn’t for your benefit, it’s for the employers benefit. Whether or not you are doing what you were put on this earth to do, has no bearing on you filling a spot at a company and doing a job to help someone else reach their dreams. I could go on for ages with this but I won’t!
  2. We can’t predict the future – as shown in the examples above, even the best minds in the world cannot predict the direction of social evolution. This is a major problem in an education system that is primarily designed to train a workforce for a future jobs market. But as we have seen we don’t know what that jobs market will look like next year let alone in 16 years time. Just ask any blacksmith in the early 20th century or fax machine engineer in the early 1990s. Technology, society and the world around us is changing at a much faster rate than we are able to teach specific subjects.
  3. The smart kids get bored and the not-so-smart kids get left behind – We allow ourselves to believe that there are intelligent kids (those who learn the “important” stuff quickly) and there are unintelligent kids (those who don’t). At the earlier ages, most of the kids are all in one class and they get taught at a pace that should suit the average in the room. Which is perfect – for the average in the room. But what happens to those who are distinctly above average or below according to where the curriculum says they should be? Well the ones who are above might receive special treatment, they might get bored and start misbehaving or they might simply just contain themselves until it’s appropriate for them to display their advancement. At this point it has to be said that these children are no better or worse than any of the others. They simply do better than expected at the things that are considered important for someone their age. What about the slow kids? Well they will not pick up everything that is thrown at them from the teacher at the front and they will get left behind. As they get older they will be separated out from the average and smart kids and will put in different classes in these subjects albeit not learning the same stuff because as we know the most important thing is to get everyone through the system by a certain age.
  4. We are separated from ourselves – now this might sound very Marxist but one of the things that makes us quintessentially human is our creativity. Creativity and imagination is what spurred on inventors, explorers, designers, entrepreneurs, artists, musicians and basically anyone who has ever achieved anything! Yet when we look at the school system that we are put through, the subjects that require complete objectivity are regarded in higher esteem than the classically accepted creative subjects. And as we get older, the bias strengthens and the “intelligent” children will gravitate towards maths and sciences and away from the arts and sport. Our creative spirit is what makes us great. It’s what is exciting about who we are and it’s where passion comes from.

So if that is the case and the education system is so bad then why has no one changed it? Why has there been no great revolution of angry parents and students demanding reform and freeing us from the shackles of 19th century production line, industrial education?

Simply? Because it works.

What?!

Yes. It works. The system is designed to get you through as quickly as possible so that by the time you are of age to start employment you will have enough tools to go and join the work force. That is it. And most people, at 16, 18 or 21 are equipped to join the work force in varying capacities. Most people will get job. Most people will end up in career based on what was realistic when they were in school.

Realistic. Realistic. I have never understood what people meant by that word. How realistic is it that 100 tonnes of metal is filled up with explosive liquid and sent 33,000 feet in the air over 5,000 miles over land and sea, with hundreds of passengers, and land safely? Or that I can have access to all of the information that has ever been written down on a wireless device that can fit in my jacket pocket? But realistic is the lie that keeps us believing in this system. You ask a 6 year old what they want to be when they grow up and they tell you they want to be a footballer or an astronaut and you tell them that they can do it. But if a 16 year old tells you the same thing, they need to grow up and get a realistic job. Except Neil Armstrong and Cristiano Ronaldo never grew up.

But they are right, and most people (by definition) never make it to be at the top of their field in those highly exciting but highly competitive careers, so to achieve some level of stability and financial security, it’s best to go through the current system and get a realistic job. Rather than pursue a dream job.

But what if they can? What if there was a way for them to go through an education system only being taught key principles for life education and allowing them to really become educated in the truest sense of the word and yet still make them economically viable citizens. What if the system actually pushed them beyond boundaries that they have never expected to achieve by fostering a deep rooted passion for their own education from a young age and at the same time developed the necessary skills for them to be economically self sufficient and a positive contributor to society as a whole – at a higher level than they would if they went through the current system.

Well I like to think that there is a way for this to happen but we would need to change what we teach and how we teach it.

As demonstrated in a child, the determination to succeed and persistence in creating new things and news ways to express our humanity is woven into human nature but this is often taught out of us. Most people will make the biggest growth in their development before they reach school. Some of that is diminishing returns on knowledge but some of it, most of it, is because that spirit of exploration is taught out of them.

Imagine if we took a look at Western society over the last 100 years and we took the top 1000 most successful people in any field then removed everything that we knew about the education system. What would those people all have in common? What would they have all learned during their formative years?

I would suggest that they are only TAUGHT 3 subjects. Let me clarify what I mean by TAUGHT and SUBJECTS.

By taught I mean, the formal structured imparting of information from a teacher to a group of students and by subjects I mean a curriculum of set information that everyone has to absorb.

So here are the three.

  1. How to learn – understanding the best way to absorb the information for different types of things. All learning styles would be incorporated so that they can learn how they best learn different things. Collaboration would be built here so that they learn the importance of interdependence and working with other, seeing the value that can be gained here. This should be something that should be started early on in the child’s development and continued all the way through.
  2. How to love learning – learning how to drill down into the core passions of the student and finding out what excites them. Learn how to draw out a passion for learning and love for growing because they see relevance in what they are doing and purpose in their learning.
  3. How to win/succeed – key success principles that allow them to apply what they love to learn and what they’ve learned to learn to achieve what they want to achieve.

Technological advances of the last 10 years have allowed us to access so much information remotely through the internet and apps that many things that seemed like science fiction in the early 2000s are actually science reality today. Not to mention the ability to communicate with masses of people anywhere in the world that has been highlighted by the recent pandemic. By growing the knowledge of how to learn and how to love learning the students are able to access the information that is required for them to pursue their passion via video tutorials that they can learn at their own rate. A rate that I believe will be accelerated because of the passion behind it. The progress onto each stage will be based on assessments, not to classify the student as a certain grade (like we do in mass production by the way) but to find out what they are ready for in the next level of their learning. The video tutorials won’t work in a linear fashion as the students will have a choice of what interests them but certain levels of pre-requisites will have to be established first to be able to learn a specific topic. For example, if a student like cars and wants to do car mechanics, there will be a certain level of maths, physics and chemistry that they will need to understand. It won’t be taught as those subjects in the tutorials but as specific topic areas that are required for understanding further along the line. They will also have the option to learn aeronautical engineering, civil engineering, aerodynamic structuring, design, architecture and other interests as they go down different routes of learning. Have you ever been on YouTube and typed in something like Michael Jordan’s Greatest Moments and 2 hours later found yourself watching Taylor Swift in concert? Me neither… But once ignited, our curiosity will cause us to want to learn continually. By teaching a love for learning and a knowledge of how to absorb and process information, we can let our children free in a field of information and let them gather endlessly without restriction. They would be able to grow endless through a cycle of assessment, video based learning, further reading and then reassessment.

What about teachers?

When teachers act only as facilitators for the group discussions/activities and only speak to encourage the development of at least one of the three subjects, they are once again educators not limited to a curriculum. They can be specific to one of the old style subjects or generic but it must aim to develop one of the new three subject areas. Having interviewed a number of teachers, the biggest complaint that I found was that they entered the industry to educate but found themselves as baby sitters, wardens, paper-markers, form-fillers and ultimately rarely getting the opportunity to inspire excitement through education. The odd occasion of inspiration was a highlight in their week/month, rather than the norm.

So how do we get there?

This isn’t a manifesto or a policy document. There are undoubtedly flaws in some of the nuanced areas of this so this is far from a call to arms. However, there is clearly a growing trend of education platforms that either offer remote, distance, online or some other form of collaborative learning that bucks the trend of a pre-industrial education system in a post-industrial (and soon to be post-COVID-19) global economy. This is to join in the conversation. This is be argued with and to add to the argument. There have been many, many tragic deaths in the past few months, which should never be understated. It would also be a tragedy if we overcame this only to return to the flawed ways of the past.

I would be happy to converse with anyone who has opinions on this and if you are already part of the solution and there are ways in which I can help, I am also interested in hearing from you.

Summary: Learn to learn, learn to love learning and learn to win and hopefully our children will never know what it means to be realistic either.

Alex Weekes is a Digital Product Manager, Associate Lecturer, and Startup Consultant working with some of the world's most innovative startups and technologies.

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