Critical situation: The skills that kids really need

by Virginia Larson / 11 February, 2019
young people
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What are the skills young people need to get through life?

Universities are dusting down their dreaming spires about now, preparing for returning students and a wave of “freshies”. Arguably, a fair few first-years shouldn’t be there at all. About a third will never complete their bachelor degree. Equally disheartening is just how many school leavers pile into our universities with only a modicum of the basic skills required for analytical thinking, even coherent essay writing.

Our Nerd Nation columnist, Jenny Nicholls, had an email exchange recently with Auckland University’s Dr Paul Ralph, a senior lecturer in computer science. She was researching her January piece on fake news – how quickly “digital health misinformation” spreads and how to counter the online onslaught. Among her questions to Ralph was whether schools could do a better job teaching kids to be “more media-savvy and tech-literate”. “Or should they be focusing on basic skills,” she asked hopefully, “like scientific literacy (eg understanding what a clinical trial is)…?”

Ralph’s written response began, “HAHAHAHAHA… Never mind media-savvy and tech-literate, we have students entering university unable to write a grammatically correct sentence or understand basic probability.

“Our education system needs a complete overhaul. It’s all interconnected: schools suffer from a lack of teachers; there aren’t enough teachers because our cities are unaffordable; our cities are unaffordable because we treat housing as a capital asset…”

I’m right behind Ralph on the link between the teacher shortage and our ludicrous housing market. Add to the mix the past few years’ population explosion, in Auckland especially, and it’s not surprising to hear that overcrowded schools have been converting staffrooms and libraries into temporary classrooms – and class sizes have expanded way beyond optimal numbers.

Still, when journalists launch into any debate on what kids should be taught at school, I detect a collective sigh from North & South’s teacher-readers. I’m writing this on a Sunday in February; I don’t have to front up tomorrow morning to a classroom of 30 hormonal teenagers, most of whom don’t really want to be there.

But even teachers must question the curriculum sometimes: is it preparing young people for “the age of accelerations”, as coined by US writer Thomas L. Friedman? The need for good written English and arithmetic – literacy and numeracy – seems a given. History surely offers enough Sturm und Drang to be made interesting for teenagers, besides falling in step with philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

But should social studies also encompass “civics education”? It’s in the curriculum already under NCEA standards such as “personal social action”, but course content is left up to individual schools. Civics isn’t compulsory, even as political upheavals worldwide suggest raising well-informed, active citizens has never been more important.

Financial literacy is caught in the same “choice” conundrum. Despite a wealth of programmes being offered to schools by the Ministry of Education, Commission for Financial Capability and various organisations, they don’t reach the majority of students because the kids don’t select those units – or parents demand they take “academic” subjects. Students doing economics and accounting may pick up some money management skills, but that leaves more than 80% learning little or nothing about finance and money.

An initiative that promises to fill the gaps is the government’s “school leavers’ toolkit”, designed to equip all young people with financial and workplace skills, civics education, even a driver’s licence. Still, $50 million earmarked for the programme has so far coughed up only $1.7m for “design work”. Meanwhile, most kids leave school knowing nothing about the likes of hire purchase, interest rates and term deposits. My 25-year-old niece says she used to be mortified as a teen when her lawyer mother occasionally cited the Consumer Guarantees Act in a store – but she’s now thankful she was exposed to this kind of knowledge.

Jenny Nicholls’ point was about the importance of teaching critical thinking, early enough to navigate the internet’s barrage of dodgy, often dangerous misinformation – to sift fact from the fallacious. Understanding a clinical trial, she suggested, would help. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins chose the double-blind control experiment when asked, “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” After reminding us that three-quarters of all Americans believe in angels, half of them in ghosts, he then argued that rather than blame stupidity for such beliefs, it was more optimistic to focus on something remediable: a lack of training in how to think critically, and how to discount personal opinion, prejudice and anecdote, in favour of evidence.

I know, teachers are often expected to be child therapists, family counsellors, sometimes breakfast providers, while they also deliver the three “Rs”. Now this? But in a fast-changing, fake-news world, arming our kids to think is critical.

This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of North & South.
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