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7 subjects that should be taught in U.S. schools
These seven subjects don't teach toward the test, but they will help students lead happier, healthier, and smarter lives.
- Too often, schools teach toward tests that measure IQ and academic aptitude, not other life-critical skills and drives.
- Only 17 states require high school students to take a personal finance class, despite how vital such knowledge is to future security.
- From religion to behavioral science, we detail seven subjects that should be taught in all U.S. schools.
As the saying goes, school prepares students for life, and the current U.S. system teaches many life-critical skills, chiefly reading, writing, and arithmetic. But parse a standard course curriculum, and it appears that focus has shifted from life to something more in line with a college course in algebra or Romanticism.
Don't get us wrong. The quadratic equation is intellectually engaging. Keats's poetry is as haunting as it is beautiful. And the merits of liberal education are undervalued in our society.
But contemporary teachers are often forced to teach to the test, which measures IQ and academic ability but fosters neither drive nor social skills. We encounter the mathematics of a nutrition label more frequently than we solve for x. And "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" may not be the most helpful sentiment when everyone must be responsible for fact-checking the information we share.
We need a new curriculum, one that improves students' lives, as well as their minds.
Only 17 states require high school students to take a personal finance class, and fewer than half require a course in economics. That's according to a 2018 survey by the Council for Economic Education.
This leaves many students woefully underprepared for this critical life skill and places the educational burden on parents. But parents may not be experts in the subject, just as they may not be experts in governance or cellular biology.
Another survey — this one from FINRA — found that only 34 percent of U.S. adults could answer four of five questions on basic financial literacy correctly.
"Most Americans aren't fluent in the language of money," writes Tara Siegel Bernard, a New York Times personal finance reporter. "Yet we're expected to make big financial decisions as early as our teens — Should I take on thousands of dollars of student debt? Should I buy a car? — even though most of us received no formal instruction on financial matters until it was too late."
We need knowledgeable teachers to teach students how to budget, plan for retirement, and parse financial documents. Before getting to college, students should know how to find their credit score, the difference between a variable and fixed interest rate, and why paying only the minimum on your credit card bill is just a bad idea.
Employment and networking
Why do 75 percent of resumes never reach human eyes? If a hiring manager does look at your resume, how do you optimize it to match common eye-scan reading patterns? What goes on a cover letter? What's the STAR method, and what do you do after an interview?
Too many people enter the job hunt with a vague sense of direction. They learn the answers to the above questions through trial and error or by a piecemeal self-study. To give students the boost they need, job-finding and networking skills should be comprehensively taught at the high school level.
Instead, we should teach students how to write a resume and cover letter. Teach them the importance of social and professional networking and give them the tools to make those connections. And maybe remind them that that social media post will probably be seen by the hiring manager googling your name. Luckily, those can be deleted.
Religion should be mandatory in schools, but not in the way the U.S. currently goes about it. Schools should not make prayer compulsory. Creationism should not be taught as a viable alternative to evolution. And meditation should be taught as a calming mental exercise, not a path to enlightenment.
"Teaching about world religions is the better approach, because such instruction can help erase stereotypes of religious minorities and fill a pressing need to reduce ignorance about religion," writes Linda K. Wertheimer, author of Faith Ed, Teaching About Religion in an Age of Intolerance, in an op-ed.
In her op-ed, she cites Pew's 2010 "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey." It showed that, on average, Americans could only answer 16 of 32 questions about world religions. Interestingly, atheists and agnostics averaged the most correct answers (20.9).
Instead, high school students should study world religions like anthropologists. They should read religious myths and history, understand tenets, and explore how contemporary practitioners engage with their religion through ceremony and custom.
Crucially, such classes should also teach the distinction between personal and communal religious convictions and how religious interpretation has evolved over the centuries.
About half of U.S. adults will experience a mental illness in their lifetime. Most of those will surface between the ages of 14 and 24. Like in finances, people will need to make decisions regarding their mental health young, and if not properly prepared, that decision may damage their wellbeing and relationships.
"We teach [students] how to detect the signs of cancer and how to avoid accidents, but we don't teach them how to recognize the symptoms of mental illness," Dustin Verga, a high school health teacher, told Stateline. "It's a shame because, like cancer, mental health treatment is much more effective if the disease is caught early."
Mental health classes would focus on developing practical mental wellbeing skills. Students would be introduced to methods of self-reflection and emotional assessment. They would practice techniques for effectively dealing with intense emotions such as stress, anger, and sadness. And they start a daily meditation practice, which science has shown offers a bevy of emotional and development benefits.
These classes could also help destigmatize mental illness — although the U.S. is improving in this regard, barriers continue to prevent many Americans from seeking the care they need. They could impart knowledge about mental illnesses and substance abuse, introduce the principles of cognitive behavior therapy, and explain how to access the available avenues of care.
We must also prepare students to understand their minds better. Behavioral science can help students understand what motivates them, why they make the decisions they do, and how to adjust habits to adjust their lives' trajectories toward their goals. And because behavioral science teaches students about their minds, they can use its tools to learn better ways to learn.
Conversely, such classes would also equip students with the knowledge of just how faulty their reasoning minds are. Not just students. All the people.
Students would learn about heuristics and biases — mental shortcuts that allow us to make judgments quickly and solve problems quickly but not accurately. They would better learn to recognize groupthink, loss aversion, and sunk cost situations. And they would better recognize the traps and tricks used by advertisers and politicians to direct their thinking and consumption.
Few children will grow up to be architects. That much is true. But grade school students can derive many useful academic and life lessons through the study of architectural design.
At its heart, architecture is about problem-solving. Students are provided a goal and materials, and they must use those materials to reach said goal. There isn't a single correct answer, either. Students must use their creativity to solve problems, leading to many valid approaches and even connecting STEM to the arts.
"With design, no solution is 100-percent right or wrong," Vicky Chan, founder of the voluntary organization Architecture for Children, said in the interview. "It's not like solving a mathematical problem. In sport, you can teach team spirit, but at the end of the day, it's a competition and it boils down to winning and losing. But in design, there is no absolute answer, and it's very much like in real life."
Architecture branches into other lesson plans as well. When Chan teaches architecture, she uses it to imbue students with the principles of sustainability, but the class could also introduce students to urban planning and real-world mathematics.
Video game design
Again, most people won't become game designers. But like architecture, video game design harbors many furtive lessons that connect to a wide range of careers.
The hard skills taught will be appraised highly in the coming decades. Programming, graphic development, and a capacity to learn new platforms and computational skills. Dig deeper though, and you'll see a bevy of soft skills being fostered, too. Video game design develops analytical, problem-solving, and critical-thinking skills. It requires teamwork and effective division of labor. And it combines storytelling and artistic creativity with STEM.
Students will need to expand their growth mindsets to succeed, but the nature of video games will also ask them to create methods to enlarge players' growth mindsets, too. As Jane McGonigal, a senior researcher at the Institute for the Future, told Big Think in an interview:
Industry research shows that gamers actually spend 80 percent of the time failing when they're playing their favorite games. Four out of five times they don't finish the mission, they don't level up, they don't get the score they want – they have to keep trying. And having that resilience in the face of failure is definitely a gamer quality – that we are able to learn from our mistakes, that we are willing to try again.
In this light, a video game design class doesn't simply teach students a subject. It teaches them how to effectively set goals and plan systems that reward effort to those goals.
Rethinking the 21st-century curriculum
As Jeffrey J. Selingo writes for the Harvard Business Review: "For decades, the college degree had been the strongest signal of job readiness. Today there is a lot of noise interfering with that signal, and employers question whether a traditional undergraduate education arms students with the soft skills needed in the workplace."
These seven represent subjects that we believe will help students develop soft skills, job readiness, and life-healthy habits. They aren't meant to replace traditional subjects but update educational careers to the 21st-century standard.
- Should cognitive behavioral therapy be taught in school? - Big Think ›
- 5 life skills we need to teach in school - Big Think ›
- Should architecture be taught in grade school? - Big Think ›
- The key to student engagement? Make them feel valued. - Big Think ›
- Post-COVID-19 education: What should be on the curriculum? - Big Think ›
Welcome to the world's newest motorsport: manned multicopter races that exceed speeds of 100 mph.
- Airspeeder is a company that aims to put on high-speed races featuring electric flying vehicles.
- The so-called Speeders are able to fly at speeds of up to 120 mph.
- The motorsport aims to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector, which could usher in the age of air taxis.
Airspeeder, the world's newest motorsport, is set to debut its first race in 2021.
What can you expect to see? Something like a mix between Red Bull's air racing and the pod-racing scenes from "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace" — manned electric cars flying close together in the desert at 120 mph, nose-diving off cliffs, and racing over lakes, all while hopefully avoiding collisions.
Airspeeder calls its vehicles flying electric cars, but it's probably easier to think of the wheelless multicopters as car-sized drones. Powered by electric batteries, the carbon-fiber craft use eight propellers to fly, and the tiltable motors are designed to allow pilots to navigate through the course's pylons at high speeds.
To prevent crashes, Airspeeder is working with the companies Acronis and Teknov8 to develop "high-speed collision avoidance" systems for its Speeders.
"As they compete, Speeders will utilise cutting-edge LiDAR and Machine Vision technology to ensure close but safe racing, with defined and digitally governed no-fly areas surrounding spectators and officials," Airspeeder wrote in a blog post.
Beyond motorsports, Airspeeder hopes to help advance the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) sector. This sector is where companies like Uber, Hyundai, and Airbus are working to develop air taxis, which could someday take the ridesharing industry into the skies. By 2040, the autonomous urban aircraft industry could be worth $1.5 trillion, according to a 2019 report from Morgan Stanley.
Still, many technical and regulatory hurdles remain. Matt Pearson, Airspeeder's founder and CEO, thinks the futuristic motorsport will help to not only speed up that process, but also pave the way for self-driving cars.
"Even with autonomous vehicles on the ground, it's a difficult thing to get right because computers have to make decisions very fast," Airspeeder's founder and CEO, Matt Pearson, told GQ." But in a racing environment, you have a pretty controlled course and you have the ability to make all the vehicles cooperate with each other. You have a whole load of vehicles talking to each other, so if there's an incident or a pilot slows down or there's a traffic jam on the course they're all aware of each other. This is something we think will revolutionise autonomous vehicles on the ground. It's technology that will make flying cars a reality in our cities in the future."
Airspeeder has yet to announce a date for the first race, but Pearson said he hopes to put on three races over the first season. The company is developing two courses: one in California's Mojave Desert, and one near Coober Pedy in South Australia.
Who needs steroids when you have the placebo effect?
- A study suggests that the effectiveness of sports drinks may depend in part on their color.
- Runners who rinsed with a pink liquid ran better than those who consumed the same but colorless drink.
- Improvement in their performance is likely due to a placebo effect.
The "placebo effect" is real. It's the name for a strange phenomenon that most notably occurs during clinical trials. People who are given an inactive substance, like a sugar pill, often experience the same therapeutic benefit as those who are given actual medicine. It's not their imagination — it really happens. (Even better, recent research suggests that therapeutic benefits occur even when the person knows that they were given a placebo.)
Now, a new study from the University of Westminster (UOW) Centre for Nutraceuticals in London and published in Frontiers in Nutrition suggests that the placebo effect may explain yet another phenomenon: Athletic performance.
The research showed that treadmill runners who rinsed their mouths with a pink liquid increased their performance over runners who swished with exactly the same liquid but without the coloring. Why pink? The color is generally linked to sweetness, and the researchers wondered if that association would subconsciously trick the runners into an expectation of more carbohydrates and thus energy.
Author Sanjoy Deb explains:
"The influence of color on athletic performance has received interest previously, from its effect on a sportsperson's kit to its impact on testosterone and muscular power. Similarly, the role of color in gastronomy has received widespread interest, with research published on how visual cues or color can affect subsequent flavor perception when eating and drinking."
Running for science
Credit: Ryan De Hamer / Unsplash
For the study, the researchers recruited ten healthy adults — six men, four women. All were regular exercisers, with an average age of 30. The participants were told that they would be testing the relative benefits of two commercial sports drinks after watching a brief video explaining the value of such beverages. Previous research found that mid-exercise rinsing with such drinks can reduce the perceived intensity of exercise.
The drinks consisted of 0.12 grams of sucralose dissolved in 500 mL of plain water — an artificially sweetened rinse low in calories. The liquids contained no other additives common to sports drinks such as caffeine. The pink version had non-caloric coloring added but was otherwise identical.
After a 12-minute warmup phase of jogging followed by running, the athletes ran at a difficult pace for 30 minutes, rinsing with their drinks as they ran. Following a brief cool-down, they were interviewed to capture their impressions of the exercise session. (Each runner tested both drinks.)
The researchers found that when the volunteers used the pink rinse, they ran an average of 212 meters farther and 4.4 percent faster. They also enjoyed the exercise more.
Deb said, "The findings from our study combine the art of gastronomy with performance nutrition, as adding a pink colorant to an artificially sweetened solution not only enhanced the perception of sweetness, but also enhanced feelings of pleasure, self-selected running speed, and distance covered during a run."
The researchers also plan to dig deeper into the phenomenon by investigating the possibility that the pinkness of the beverage is somehow directly activating the brain's reward areas.
Like autism, ADHD lies on a spectrum, and some children should not be treated.
- ADHD is an extremely contentious disorder in terms of diagnosis and treatment.
- A research team examined 334 studies on ADHD published between 1979 and 2020.
- The team concluded that ADHD is being overdiagnosed and overtreated in children with milder symptoms.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) has long been a controversial topic. While the term "mental restlessness" dates back to 1798, English pediatrician George Still described the disorder in front of the Royal College of Physicians of London in 1902. The condition is attributed to both nature and nurture, with a recent study suggesting the disorder is 75 percent genetic.
According to DSM-IV criteria, ADHD affects five to seven percent of children; but according to ICD-10, only between one and two percent are afflicted. Global estimates state that nearly 85 million people suffer from ADHD, which, like autism, exists on a spectrum.
Treatment is perhaps the most contentious issue. While a holistic approach includes counseling, lifestyle changes, and medication, due to insurance requirements and other factors, many children only receive the latter. And now a new systematic scoping review published in the journal JAMA Network Open that investigated 334 studies conducted between 1979 and 2020 found that ADHD is being both overdiagnosed and overtreated in children and adolescents.
ADHD: An epidemic of overdiagnosis
Researchers from the University of Sydney and the Institute for Evidence-Based Healthcare in Australia initially retrieved 12,267 relevant studies before using a set of criteria that whittled the list down to 334. Only five studies critically investigated the costs and benefits of treating milder cases of ADHD, prompting the team to focus on knowledge gaps in side effects.
The team writes that public scrutiny has increased along with the increase in diagnoses. The numbers are startling: between 1997 and 2016, the number of children reported to be suffering from ADHD doubled. While the symptoms of ADHD include fidgeting, inattention, and impulsivity, Dr. Stephen Hinshaw compared this disorder to depression, as neither condition has "unequivocal biological markers." He continues, "It's probably not a true epidemic of ADHD. It might be an epidemic of diagnosing it."
The Australian researchers write that ambiguous or mild symptoms might contribute to diagnostic inflation and the subsequent rise in the prevalence of ADHD. They compare this to cancer, a field that has established protocols for overdiagnosis. ADHD is still understudied in this regard.
Photo: fizkes / Adobe Stock
Overdiagnosis is harmful
This has contributed to an increase in potential harm, not just to children's health (such as the long-term pharmacological impact on developing brains) but to parents' finances. As of 2018, ADHD is a $16.4 billion global industry, with continued revenue growth predicted — ensured by future ADHD diagnoses.
The costs and benefits of ADHD treatment are mixed. The authors write:
"We found evidence of benefits for academic outcomes, injuries, hospital admissions, criminal behavior, and quality of life. In addition, harmful outcomes were evident for heart rate and cardiovascular events, growth and weight, risk for psychosis and tics, and stimulant misuse or poisoning."
For most of these studies, the benefits outweighed the risks in children suffering from more severe ADHD. But this is not true for children with milder symptoms.
Across the studies, the team noticed that four themes emerged. The first two were positive, and the second two were negative:
- For some people, an ADHD diagnosis was shown to create a sense of empowerment because a biological explanation provided a sense of legitimacy.
- Feelings of empowerment enabled help-seeking behavior.
- For others, a biomedical explanation led to disempowerment because it served as an excuse and provided a way to shirk responsibility.
- An ADHD diagnosis was linked to stigmatization and social isolation.
The unfortunate reality is that ADHD is a real condition that should be treated in some children. But for many, the harm of treatment outweighs the benefits.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
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