The world of 2012 is far different from the world of 1870. Yet while technology, culture, art, and media have utterly transformed the culture of America during those intervening years, the American education system has remained disappointingly stagnant. Having not improved on the traditions of class lectures, age divisions, and summer vacations, going to school in 2012 is only a television or two away from being the same as it was in 1870.

But there’s one potential issue that critics and supporters of American nationalized education disagree vehemently about: curriculum.

Curriculum is, quite simply, the content of what children are learning. And while most certainly agree on maintaining the presence the three R’s – reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic – there are a lot of people who wonder if children aren’t simply wasting their time by spending it listening to lectured facts.

Shouldn’t children with certain predispositions or talents be exposed to a more challenging curriculum than others? Shouldn’t struggling children without diagnosed learning disabilities be able to “catch up” to the rest of the class with a customized curriculum?

The truth is that the current education is indeed outdated, and the modern curriculum reflects that. But in order to understand the problem, we’ll first have to understand what’s wrong with the modern curriculum.

Do Kids Learn the Right Things These Days?

Education – from literacy to math and beyond – is important. Having a basic curriculum standard for each individual student is not a bad idea.

But once you get beyond the “Three R’s” of education, things get a little hazier. What, indeed, are the benefits of learning music, for example, for the children with no interest or predisposition towards it? Some would argue that including a subject like music in a curriculum is important in making sure that children are well-rounded. After all, they argue, what good is an education if it is not a comprehensive education?

Learning music, however, is not the problem. The problem is what children aren’t learning. For example, how many of these basic life skills are actually part of the core curriculum in the K-12 American education system?

  • Personal finance
  • Loan and money management
  • Car/home maintenance
  • Basic survival and emergency preparation
  • Socialization and networking

While a comprehensive education that spans from Mozart to Means, Medians, and Modes is important, why are the above essentials so scarcely focused on? Under the guise of giving children a well-rounded education, many supporters simply offer a partial system that does not truly prepare young men and women for the world after school.

For example, how many high school graduates are unable to change a tire? How many have plunged themselves into credit card debt? How many would be woefully under-equipped to handle a natural disaster, an injury, or a sustained power outage? How many people lack social skills to the point where it harms their long-term career prospects?

The answer for all of the above, of course, is “too many.” And it’s because many basic and essential life skills are not part of a curriculum. Learning facts about the Civil War, while important, does not make one a fully-functioning adult – and it hardly makes one truly “educated.”

The Doing vs. Hearing Problem

Perhaps one important element missing from this discussion is that schools in 2012 are still based on the lecture model: one teacher explaining things to children, assigning homework, and offering feedback on the students’ performance.

This is the “hearing” model of learning: if you tell students a fact, they should be able to retain that fact.

But learning in the real world doesn’t work like that. It has to be interactive, proactive – perhaps even a little messy as one makes mistakes. How many people still struggle with new experiences for the first time no matter how much they’ve been told about it? The only true way to learn is through action – through actually performing a task and making corrections as you go. This was known even in Aristotle’s time, when he said “To do is to be.” Students who are not taught to do are essentially being conditioned to live passive lives.

It is not regular practice that consumes the time of today’s student, but the inaction of listening to a lecture. Even so-called learning experts will tell aspiring teachers that most students only retain about 20% of what they hear, therefore rendering 80% of the time spent in school largely useless. Yes, traditional schooling also comes with the practice of homework, but homework is by definition unsupervised. There is very little interaction between the student and the teacher going on.

How can this be solved in the curriculum? It would require an overhaul of the entire education system itself, since so many teachers are trained to educate school children a certain way.

Introducing New Curriculum

The problem of how to solve modern education’s problems through a change in the curriculum is not as complicated as it might initially seem.

Sure, modern education is set in its ways. Entire armies of teachers have been trained in the same way. But opening up the school system to flexibility and competition has the potential to change how each individual school treats its students, introduces new curriculums, and ultimately interacts with parents as well. The only way to introduce new curriculum – and find out which kind is ideal – is to free schools to be able to do so.

This means a loosening on restrictions as well as less dependence on the results of standardized testing. For some people, this is an insurmountable challenge. But if schools can be freed up to perform in the private market, they would have license to innovate and incentive to perform better than their rival schools. It is this competition – and accountability to parents – that could ultimately create a curriculum shift that helps students in the long run.

At the very least, that kind of modernized system would have an impact in bringing the schools out of the dark ages and have them exploring the new possibilities of the 21st century.

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