Trying to answer of what, on the margin, high schools should teach more of gets at the heart of numerous subquestions, including:
- What is the role of schooling?
- Where is the economy heading?
- What level of content can high schoolers handle?
- What is already being covered well?
I will steal from a bunch of bloggers, academics, and practitioners in a way that will be a little hard to cite, but it’s fair to say that little that follows below is that original.
A Primary Goal of Schooling is to Normalize that which is Not Normal
In hunter and gather societies, Algebra is not normal. Nor is conscientiousness. Nor is abstract logic.
You get the idea. As societies advance, there’s a bunch of things that may need to be taught because physical and cultural evolution do not provide enough guiding instruction.
Of course, school is isn’t the only way to learn things that aren’t normal, but we’ve chose to make it a major source of normalization.
So one way to answer the question – what should high schools teach more of – is to consider what is not normal now but that we would wish to be normal in the future.
Closely related: what is close enough to normal now that schooling could provide a meaningful nudge to normalization?
What Would Make the World Better if It Were Normal?
A lot of recent books and blog posts have influenced me on this, perhaps most notably Superforecasters, Scott Alexander’s post on how hard things are for a lot of people, and Triggers.
The thesis of each of these sources are as follows:
- Superforecasters = always start with baseline research and data before making any decision.
- Scott Alexander = even in America, a lot of people are suffering with major issues such as chronic pain, drug abuse, and unemployment.
- Triggers = adult behavior change is very hard but possible.
Over the past few years, recent events in my own life have driven home the importance and relevance of these theses.
What would make the world better if it were more normal?
I think these two things:
- An increased internalization that opinions should be formed based on baseline data and research. I mean this both in the policy sense (should we raise taxes?), the business sense (which website design should we use?), and personal life (which nursing home should I use?).
- Adult behavior change is possible and specific techniques can increase the chance of success. I mean this in the professional sense (I need to ask more questions in meetings), the interpersonal sense (I need to talk less about myself in groups), and the spiritual sense (I need to meditate more frequently).
Can High Schoolers Handle This?
I don’t know, but my guess is yes. Research trials could tell us. But none of the above are intellectually taxing in terms of complexity.
Rather, these two learnings are more just specific applications of conscientiousness, humility, and growth mindset.
It’s my strong guess that strong marginal improvement could be made in these areas without students ever entering a college campus. It feels like high school material, but I might be wrong.
Providing the Cultural Pressure and Intellectual Tools to Achieve Normalization
With a few exceptions, high school curriculum covers a lot of important material. My guess is that, on the margin, more traditional content is not what is needed (i.e., more advanced math).
Rather, at the margin, I think there may be a lot of gains to be made in providing cultural pressure – and giving student the intellectual tools – to normalize the tools of data usage and adult behavior change.
But all this is surely speculative, and I don’t have strong confidence that I’m right.
Perhaps some high schools might push in this direction and see if it makes a difference in students’ lives.