The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

It May Be Time to Scrap the Traditional High School Curriculum

on November 4, 2017

Some time ago I read an interesting article in Valerie Strauss’ blog titled “Why Kids Hate School—Subject by Subject”. In it the author, Roger Schank, a university professor, names several high school courses that he believes should be eliminated, and briefly states why each one is no longer appropriate for high school students. Today I will describe his opinions and explain where I agree or disagree with him, and why.

Professor Roger Schank claims that every subject taught in high school today is a mistake; and goes on to list courses that he finds especially bad. He names four of them that do not interest high school students because they deal with skills and information that have no connection to their lives today or the foreseeable future. In that group he puts Algebra, Chemistry, Biology, and French. Three other courses he names could be worthwhile, but he thinks they are now badly taught.

Schank does not take the time to explain the origins of the courses he names or why high schools still require them. I see them as deeply embedded traditions, originally put into the high school curriculum because most of the students in earlier times were planning to go on to college and aiming for specific careers. But they had not yet become familiar with the types of college courses available.

Today is a different world for most high school students. They are living their lives outside of school with cell phones, television, Face Book, and activities on line or in their neighborhood. College is far in the future for many of them or not even a possibility for others. Very little of what is being taught in school has any meaning for high school students.

The second group of courses that Schank criticizes are  History, Economics and English. He alleges that all of them are being improperly taught.  In my opinion the problem with  History is that the content is focused completely on the past. High school courses that cover several wars, many government leaders, war heroes, and the expansion of territory are not relevant to young people today.  But they would be meaningful if they connected past events to the present and the possible future, and featured only the most significant events and individuals. In fact, American history should probably be replaced by World history, which would give students a bigger and better picture of how the U.S. has affected other countries and they have affected us.

I also agree that Economics is a course that should be re-designed. Looking at how and why wealth and financial power are distributed in the U.S. and other countries today could be very meaningful for young people. Even better would be examining their personal dealings with money.  Figuring out how to earn, save, spend, and invest their own money might be very interesting and change many students’ lives for the better. Too many adults missed out on having such an economics class in high school.

In considering high school English Courses Schank gets rather nasty.  He vilifies great authors of the past and sees no value in their books.  The only thing he finds worth doing in an English classroom is writing.  That, in itself, makes no sense to me.  How can you learn to write if you don’t read good writing?  In my own experience as a teacher and a principal, having students read high quality literature, poetry, and drama, at the appropriate level, and using them to motivate and support their own writing were positive experiences. Students learned to write well and to enjoy their work.

Basically, I found Schank’s criticism of today’s high school courses worthy of consideration and action. Unfortunately, however, he tried too hard to be clever and act like a teenager. It’s no wonder that he received lots of criticism from teachers. I think he would have had a strong positive effect on teachers, textbook publishers and education decision makers if he had aimed his criticism at them rather than high school courses.


3 responses to “It May Be Time to Scrap the Traditional High School Curriculum

  1. pauleck47 says:

    Some areas of study that have been dropped in many schools need reconsideration—-heard a TedTalk by a teacher in Florida wherein he states that he brought up the idea to give science credit for home economics and was turned down because home ec. was a “soft” class. Hmmmm lots of applied science as well as math, writing, public speaking, health, etc. Food for thought (pun intended!).


  2. sharla rae says:

    Hi Joanne! I’ve tried to reach you by email several times, but have not heard a response. Could you provide updated contact information? I hope all is well and that you and Milton are enjoying the holiday season. Take care, Sharla


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