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Posted at 05:00 AM ET, 09/07/2012

Why kids hate school — subject by subject

A little while ago I published a post by cognitive scientist Roger C. Schank who wrote that contrary to popular opinion, algebra is not necessary and STEM education is overrated. In this follow-up piece, Schank goes subject by subject explaining why he thinks they are useless and why so many kids hate learning them.

Schank, also an artificial intelligence theorist and education reformer, has taught at Stanford and Yale universities and is the John Evans Professor Emeritus of Computer Science, Psychology, and Education at Northwestern University. Schank, the former head of the Institute for the Learning Sciences, is the author of “Teaching Minds: How Cognitive Science Can Save Our Schools.” A version of this appeared on his Education Outrage blog.

By Roger C. Schank

A message to high school students who hate high school: Here is why you hate it

Recently an article I wrote about why algebra is useless and shouldn’t be taught in high school was published on The Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

The hate mail that followed (written mostly by math teachers) was unbelievable. Most accused me of being irrational and incapable of thought, and stated that math teaches people to think. This is pretty funny because if math is supposed to teach one to think, as they argue, they might have looked me up and discovered that not only was I a math major in college, but I was also a professor of computer science.

Of course, it is not only high school math that I oppose. I believe that every single subject taught in high school is a mistake. This will surely infuriate teachers, but teachers are not my enemy. It isn’t their fault. They are cogs in a system over which they have no control. I believe there are many great teachers, and I believe that teaching and teachers are very important.

That having been said, in honor of this school year, I have decided to give students some ammunition. Here are most of the subjects you take in high school, listed one by one, with an explanation about why there is no point in taking them.

Chemistry: A complete waste of time. Why? Do you really need to know the elements of the periodic table? The formula for salt? How to balance a chemical equation? Ridiculous. Most of the people who take chemistry in college, by the way, intend to be doctors and while there is chemistry a doctor should know, they don’t typically teach it in college. Why should you take chemistry? Because someone is making you. Otherwise don’t bother. You won’t remember a thing (except NaCl.)

History: Yes yes, those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it. I guess no U.S. president ever took history because they have all forgotten the lessons of the Vietnam War, the history of Iraq and the history of foreign incursions into Afghanistan. You will learn untruths about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and World War II, all meant to teach that the United States is the best country in the world. Forget what they teach you in history. Read about it on your own if it interests you.

English: There is exactly one thing worth paying attention to in English. Not Dickens (unless of course you like Dickens.) Not Moby Dick, or Tennyson, or Hawthorne, or Shakespeare (unless of course, you like reading them.) What matters is learning how to write well. A good English teacher would give you daily writing assignments and help you get better at writing (and speaking). By writing assignments I don’t mean term papers. I mean writing about things you care about and learning to defend your arguments. Learning to enjoy reading matters as well but that would mean picking your own books to read and not having to write a book report. Lots of luck with that.

Biology. Now here is a subject worth knowing. Too bad they won’t teach you anything that matters. Plant phyla? Amoebas? Cutting up frogs? It can’t get any sillier. What should you be learning? About your own health and your own body and how to take care of it. But they don’t teach much of that in biology. They teach some nonsense part of it in health class which is usually about the official reason that you shouldn’t have sex.

Economics. This subject in high school is beyond silly. Professional economists don’t really understand economics. The arguments they have with each other are vicious and when the economy collapses there are always a thousand explanations, none of which will matter to a high school student. What should you be learning? Your personal finances. How to balance your check book. How much rent and food costs. How you can earn a living. What various jobs pay and how to get them. A high school student needs economic theory like he/she needs another leg.

Physics. This could be important if the right things were taught. But they don’t. We use physics every day of our lives, but the formulas they make you memorize won’t help you much. The Wright Brothers did not have any theory of flight. They simply tinkered with stuff until their plane flew. That is called engineering. Trying stuff to see what works. The physicists came later and explained it. It didn’t help the Wright Brothers. Why don’t they teach engineering in high school? Because engineering wasn’t a subject at Harvard in 1892.

French. Another complete waste of time. Why? Two reasons.

You cannot possibly learn a language any way other than being immersed in it and talking and listening and talking. In school they teach grammar rules and nonsense to memorize so that they can give you a test. My daughter could not get an A in English when we lived in France despite the fact that she was the only kid in the class who spoke English. Why? Because she didn’t know the grammar rules of English. The same thing happened when we came back to the United States. She could speak perfect French (a year in France will do that) but still couldn’t get an A in French. Grammar is like a physics formula, nice in theory but useless in practice, because the practical knowledge we use is not conscious knowledge.

The second reason is more subtle. School happens not to teach the French that people actually speak. No one says “comment allez-vous?” in France. They say “ca va?” But we don’t teach students how to speak foreign languages — at least not well.

Immersion is the only way to really learn another language.

A Barcelona newspaper recently published an interview that it did with me. I said in that iterview that the only way we learn is by doing — and to do that we must practice constantly. Schools rarely teach doing.

So here’s my advice: Learn what matters to you. If you want to graduate from high school, go ahead and memorize a lot of nonsense but don’t expect it to matter a bit when high school is over.

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