Things They Should Teach In School

The Husband and I have just finalized a deal to purchase a house.  (To read about one of the more dramatic  adventures of our search, go here.)  In the process, we’ve had to do all sorts of things that we’ve never had to do before.  We didn’t have the faintest clue how to tackle some of these things: how to best negotiate the terms of a mortgage, or what to look for in a real estate agent, or how to read a co-ownership agreement.

Along the way, someone said to The Husband, “Buying a house is one of those situations where you have to become an expert in something that you might do once, maybe twice, in your life.”  And this is true.  But there are some simple and not-so-simple things that most of us are going to have to do in life that we don’t learn about in school.

For example, the house that we finally found – a house that we totally love – is old.  It has some problems that will need to be fixed.  We will need to call an electrician, and a mason, and a contractor.  The electrician and the mason – well, fine.  But why is it that we feel the need to pay someone to install gyproc over the exposed insulation?  Surely that’s a fairly straightforward task?  For heaven’s sake, I was even talking about paying someone to paint.  I’ll have plenty of time to paint – I’ll be on summer vacation – but I wasn’t confident I could do a proper job.  I’ve come around on that one, but not because I’m sure I can do it right.  I’ve come around because I should know how to paint walls, and woodwork, and bannisters, and so I should practice.

Why don’t we learn things like home repair in school?  I know, there’s woodshop or industrial arts or whatever it’s called these days, but it’s not the same.  Beyond that, why don’t we learn the principles of designing a kitchen or tending a garden?  Most people will own homes at some point.  Most people would be better off if they could install a faucet or properly deal with a musty dryer (a task we found ourselves faced with this weekend, as though the universe is prepping us for the days ahead, when we won’t be able to call the landlord about ANYTHING.)

What else should be taught in school, but isn’t, at least in the schools you’ve attended?  Things that immediately come to my mind: meditation, cell phone etiquette (etiquette in general, for that matter) and how to counsel a troubled friend.  What do you wish you knew that no one ever taught you?

Image by Sanja Gjenero

51 responses

  1. It’s so true- so many life skills aren’t taught. And with cutbacks in home ec- there’s no sewing or cooking. I wish I took auto mechanics and bike repair. Everyone should learn touch typing, how to swim, and cpr.

  2. There are some public and private schools in my country where they do teach gardening, repair; including “hogar” which is a class where you learn “home-lessons” such as things to do in the kitchen. Some other schools basically let you choose among some others, the interesting fact is that students decide to take them not because they think about their “future home repairs”, instead because after they graduate from school, some of them, won´t be able to afford college and need to get a job doing what they learn in high school. Good entry! nos estamos leyendo.

    • Buscandoficio: I studied “home ec” in junior high, and so should have learned basics of cooking and sewing (but my home ec courses were mostly very poorly taught and so I learned most of my cooking on my own, and have never mastered sewing.) I wish I’d learned how to install a light fixture instead! And when it comes to jobs, manual skills are invaluable – as they say, you can’t hammer a nail over the internet.

  3. Such a true post! Many things that are a central art of modern life aren’t taught in schools at all.
    I believe there should be a much bigger emphasis on computer’s, especially in the “high school” levels of education. Everything is run on computers these days and unfortunately having a facebook page isn’t necessarily enough.
    As well as that, I agree on the etiquette part, possibly to a further extent I think children should be taught the fundamental unwritten rules of communication, some people can go their whole lives not knowing them, which can result in crippling social awkwardness…

    • MMI: I am amazed when I ask my students what they studied in elementary/high school concerning effective navigation of the online world. They have so little education in that area, and yet it is now at the centre of almost every young person’s life.

      • Exactly! Seems like the government is a bit behind in trends, and one as useful as the internet should really be embraced! A step forward in education is needed desperately, for example here in Ireland, by the age of 18, a student will have studied English, Irish, Maths, Geography, Biology, and Music. with choices of replacing say, geography with chemistry, but perhaps not being able to do Art if they want to also do Physics. No life skills, very restricted in the subject choices, and very few of them applicable to many modern careers.

  4. I love this post! I wish they had taught me how to appreciate books at a much younger age, instead of cramming dull, uninteresting anthologies down our throats.

  5. My family taught me to cook (mostly my gramma) and my mom taught me the basics of doing laundry. My mom taught me how to organize and pay bills, and gave me a lot of great advice about avoiding the use of credit cards, etc.

    I never really did learn how to change my oil or a tire, and rely pretty heavily on my husband for that particular task.

    Personally, I think all of those things would be useful.

    (PS. May be useful to hire someone to paint woodwork–bannisters in particular. My husband and I built a house last year, and the more intricate parts of the bannister can be difficult to work with if they aren’t in pieces. Walls should be no problem.)

    • My kids were taught money managment (in Consumer Education) and nutrition (in Health). Every student has to take these classes in our state. However, many are not motivated to take these lessons in because what these classes aim to do is shape students’ behavior, which is a lot harder than simply getting them to understand some principles and remember some information.

      But the bigger picture that this post paints is so true: there are many practical things that are 1) useful to know and 2) could lead to a profession or occupation for some students. The drawback is that they are hard to teach effectively in a classroom environment. So many of us did have Home Ec, but really learned cooking and sewing (if we did at all) from family members. And there is such a wide range of potentially needed skills. Families don’t teach them to the extent that they once did — but really, how can we expect schools to teach everything that might be useful or needed? Leaving room for electives that have practical applications seems the only reasonable solution. So some kids will learn to wire a light fixture, and some will learn to make stew, and some will learn to change the oil in a car, and some will learn several of tlhese things.

      • EB:
        “The drawback is that they are hard to teach effectively in a classroom environment.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. The classroom is limited in so many ways, not only given the evolution of our society, but also given the fundamentals that are often no longer being taught at home. It seems to me that a massive overhaul of the physical and organizational structure of schools is long overdue…

        • Amen to the massive overhaul. I think we teach a lot of things that AREN’T important. At all. Ego driven primarily. It’s time to slaughter a bunch of the sacred cows in education–and I say this as a teacher myself.

          A lot of content knowledge that *is* useful could be embedded into our core curriculum. My physics class in high school actually integrated engine repair and a lot of other real world projects. It had more meaning.

          I think we should get rid of classes with titles like Math or Physics or English and replace them with Home Maintenance, Finance and Investment, etc. The kids would be engaged, and the question of, “Why are we learning this?” would go the way of the dinosaurs.

  6. I sympathize with your stress–home repair, renovation, remodeling, it’s crazy-making. My husband and I bought our first home, a 3300-sq ft gut rehab in a historic district (rules, rules and more rules for what you can and can’t do to your home!), and for 8 yrs we lived in plaster dust and chaos while we did the bulk of the work ourselves. Washed our dishes in the bathtub for the first 3 months because we didn’t have a kitchen sink yet! I was much younger and more naive then. I’d never do it again, ever. But we came away with so many skills. Friends who didn’t know us then are constantly amazed at what my husband–a project manager at a software company with a music degree–can do. He’s installed tile, can run all your plumbing, wire your house, hang drywall. You name it, he can do it. In contrast, his dad, who grew up in an apt building in Chicago, has to call someone to change a lock or a doorknob. And as for what should be taught in school but isn’t? Logic, or critical thinking. Applicable to all parts of life, and I’m often struck by the lack of ability to think critically in otherwise very bright, well-educated adults. Great post, and good luck on your house!

    • STG: Wow, what a story! We are hoping our reno and repairs will be a bit more managable: a bit of grounding of the electrical, an outside wall that needs re-bricking, some painting etc. We have long-term plans but if all goes well, we will at least be able to wash dishes for the foreseeable future! That said, we know that old houses are bound to turn up surprises, even after a thorough inspection… I agree on the critical thinking side, although there’s some evidence that as much as we try, our brains aren’t really ready for analytical thinking until we are in our late teens. I’m seeing some of my students make the transition, and it’s very interesting.

  7. I love all these ideas! I wrote a little about including more vocational education in our schools ( because some people don’t want to go down the academic path and we NEED more highly skilled workers in our industries but hadn’t even thought about the little things we should learn as life skills regardless of our career paths.

    Even though I took a semester of home ec in middle school it would really have benefited me to take more, and probably in high school instead. Thinking of the sewing projects I’ve failed at lately while I relearn really makes me want more of that in school. And cooking classes would definitely have made Chemistry more relevant!

  8. Sometimes little children need to be taught things that their parents do not teach them – or “untaught” things their parents have taught them. That’s a fairly complicated and delicate task.

  9. I haven’t read all the replies, but my husband and I have this discussion a lot. He’s GREAT with money and I’m not. I went off to college and didn’t even know how to write a check. Don’t get me wrong, I went off to college on a full scholarship. It’s just that NOBODY taught me about money. I always say…. if I knew then what I know now. Sometimes I truly believe that the money industry wants us to be naive and uneducated. I believe we need to teach kids about money — management, how the stock market works, retirement options, credit cards, house buying and interest (not just how to do percentages in math class), and the beat goes on. I mean… let’s face it… when you got your first job at 16 and your first paycheck and you saw the end result and you wanted to know WTF were all those deductions??? Yeah, we need to teach kids about money. Seriously about money. And then for sure about nutrition. Debt and obesity are killing us.

  10. the funny thing about school, though, is how often the subjects needed for everyday life (like counseling a friend or relationships between guys and girls or even which chemicals not to mix together when cleaning a bathroom) come up by accident through the school subjects that are taught =)

    I remember one class of 8th graders that got an impromptu lesson in reasons not to use demeaning words towards girls (words referring primarily to female prostitutes). We were studying _The Old Man and The Sea_ and we ended up discussing what the old man calls the Portuguese man-o-war. Talk about an interesting opportunity for teaching life skills :/ But it turned out very well overall . . . and the guys never used those words to tease the girls again =)

  11. I wish they taught you how to write checks. The first time I ever wrote a check was in college, and I didn’t know how. Embarassing.

    I also wish health (nutrition, exercise, sex ed) had a bigger role in education. This is a huge issue for me, and I could go on and on about it for hours. Health education should be a priority!*

  12. It’s there…it’s called Family and Consumer Sciences. They are elective classes, considered the “dumping” ground for putting students with behavioral problems and academic issues. I have been teaching classes in financial management, child development, interior design, and nutrition all my career.

    It is the least respected and least valued area in schools, whether it’s high school or college. Anything that helps a person in their personal and family life, just isn’t considered worthy, Why? Because politicians, school administrators, school counselors and university intellectuals have deemed it as such. And what have we gotten for this screwed up thinking? A country where success in marriage is a crap-shoot, the family structure has fallen apart, we have more people on welfare than ever before, the housing crisis, obesity….the list could go on.

    I had the privilege for 4 years of having a young man in several classes who was the class valedictorian. He graduated with a 108 grade point average, and earned a full scholarship to Duke University. During his senior year I ask him why he continued to take my classes, when it was clear he was smart enough his didn’t need what was considered “easy A” courses. His response? “There are a lot of classes in this school that are preparing me for college. Your classes are preparing me for my personal life, and that’s just as important.” If only the leaders of school districts thought the same way.

  13. I agree with you 100%. When I was in Grade 9, a teacher decided to teach us (girls at an all-girls school) how to wire a plug and how to change a tire. My dad had already taught me to do this, but none of the other girls knew how. That was very clever of her.

    I wish school had taught me how to get out of bed on those mornings when you really just want to hide under the covers.

  14. Hi There. I have the opposite problem. Since I could pick up a hammer I have been fixing things and learning how things work.The problem is I am always the ‘go to guy’ for my family and friends when they need things fixed. So this year I decided to start putting it all together in one place a blog called ‘homeevolution’. Fixing up a house is not difficult if you are prepared to give it a try. Good luck

  15. My husband and I are going through this process too. Second time buying, first time selling. Coordinating this is tricky for various reasons.

    I wish I’d had a class on how to deal with office politics, meditation – yes, absolutely, General Principles of Happiness, How to Hire Professionals (CPA, Lawyers, etc)

  16. The problem that you address in this post, the disconnect between formal education and real-life skills, is certainly a complicated one. While you mostly address practical skills, like construction, I wonder if the disconnect happens in part because of perception. I’m a TA for an English 101 class at a university, and I’ve noticed that most of my students seem to think that nothing they learn in class will have any bearing on their “real” lives after college. They don’t seem to grasp that the skills they learn are skills that they will need in a professional setting.

    At the same time, I sometimes wonder if the class could be structured to provide more practical and less abstract skills. I often think it might be useful to teach students how to write a professional sounding email. (I realized this was a problem when a friend of mine began an email to one of his professors with “hey, I need to meet with you.”) I also wish that classes could teach students how to do research and find resources in the real world. I know I would love some help learning how to research a contractor or lawyer before I hired one, and I feel that with the focus on research in so many college classes, it wouldn’t be too much of a jump. Finally, like a few other people who have already posted, I think more classes should emphasize online and technological skills. Lessons on how to use a Google Doc, that emphasize skills that will help students collaborate in a workplace would also be helpful.

    I would love it if there was a better way to bridge the gap between school and “real life.” I think it’s easier to learn, and students have more motivation, if skills taught in schools better reflected skills needed in the workplace. It’s also important to demonstrate how the theoretical knowledge taught in schools can make the jump, and be applied in the professional world.

    • I think that’s a great idea. I write a blog about education ( Would you like to come up with a proposal of lessons that would teach some of these research ideas? I’d love to feature it on the blog. I’m always interested in research ideas that get students motivated to actually do the work. It’s hard to teach those Comp 101 or 102 classes that are general studies but need to be about the research they’ll be doing for a long time either in school or their personal lives. Or, if you’d rather talk about the theoretical work and critical thinking that can make the jump, that is also very important.

    • “the disconnect between formal education and real-life skills . . . seem to think that nothing they learn in class will have any bearing on their “real” lives after college. They don’t seem to grasp that the skills they learn are skills that they will need in a professional setting.”

      English TA: you have named the problem and described it so well! If students are not making the connecting between the skills we are teaching them now and their real lives, how will any other skills fare better in their minds? Somehow they have school and life in two separate mental boxes and ne’er the twain shall meet.

      I guess that it’s one of the things we still try to do for them all the time–make the connections. Perhaps that IS the battle we fight as teachers: after all, if they saw the connections themselves, they’d be much more eager to learn what we are teaching them and the things they are learning would remain with them longer.

      One other thing that goes into this complicated problem is a confidence in the fact that what we teach matters. Students, by their very nature, see less of the picture than the teacher does. It’s easy for them to miss the importance of something that we can see matters a great deal. However, if they have the confidence what we teach does connect to their real lives, they are much more likely to notice the connections for themselves and retain the material longer so that they are able to find the connections when the time comes for the connections to be made in their minds.

      • ATWB:
        The Husband mentioned, after reading this post, that he did indeed study things like mortgage calculations in school. It seemed so far removed from anything in his experience, or anything that he would ever experience (at sixteen, who really believes they will ever buy a house?) that the lessons didn’t stick.

        • Siobhan: the sad (or perhaps funny) thing is that I took an entire course in college entitled Tests and Measurements and really didn’t understand much of what I was learning . . . until a couple years into my teaching career. All of a sudden, that book I’d struggled through and not comprehended became very valuable (if only I could remember where I’d put it)!

  17. This is all great and fun and wonderful… but I struggle with it because the home values, connections, and life skills that should be a part of family life have all but disappeared. Because of this, it is a great idea to embed these skills into schooling…but let’s be realistic- teachers are asked to do more and more every day! We want to do it all, but the time and flexibility factor isn’t there. I often get frustrated when I read about education transformation in the schools or in government, but what we really need is a societal transformation.

    Thanks for getting me thinking about this. Great post.

    • soul strikers: You have hit the issue squarely–when the home does not do what the home is supposed to do, the teachers see the need and feel compelled (either by the desire to help or by the requirements of society that is trying to pin the responsibility somewhere) to fill the need. But the need is too big for teachers to fill. The home’s job is still the home’s job, even when the home won’t do its job.

      The sad thing is that the problems students have connecting the academic things we teach to their real lives stem from this home problem as well. When students have a stable home that does what a home ought to do, they are able to perform better academically and see the point of their education better as well.

    • SS: yes, this is part of the problem. I’m not sure, however, if there’s a solution at the home level for all of it. When it comes to things like cooking and home repair, for example, a lot of those things are no longer taught at home because we no longer live in an extended family environment where we hang out in the kitchen w/ Grandma or Uncle John comes over to help Dad fix the porch. (Forgive the gender stereotypes. You know what I’m saying.) So often, we are paying others to make dinner (takeout) or fix up the house (contractors) or even take care of our aging parents (retirement homes). There are benefits to living more independently, but there are big costs as well.

      • Excellent point. How we bring out enough talented educators who are skilled in the art of bridging the learning-to-world gap that exists, when so many places have learning in a vacuum? This is the challenge. I would love to ditch specific curriculum for one year and teach general, passion based curriculum and see what happens on the Assessments…..maybe I will take that risk!

  18. For two years I taught my students how to write a check and balance a checkbook, even though you can do everything online now. Many of them were grateful when they got that first job their sophomore year.

  19. It’d be nice if they had taught us a little bit of home work, like you said, it’d be interesting to know how to install a faucet, how to paint walls properly, etc. Although we had this class called “technology” and we learnt how to make a bulb turn on and all that, it was a 1 or 2 week thing. I don’t remember anything now. That’s one example, but there’s something I think is more important than that, and that it should be taught even after college, even after you’ve got a PhD: ethics and morals.

  20. I wish they allowed us to teach life skills at the high school I work at. I also wish that all students had to go to vocational school. Our school has a vocational school program and the students who go to that program are mainly encouraged to enter it because they are not going to college. I wish I entered vocational school because then I would have been able to get a good job right from high school and then would still go to college. Our vocational school program has cosmetology, welding, woodworking, culinary arts etc.
    I wish I learned more life skills in high school such as banking, job skills, money and time management skills, organization skills.

  21. I agree with the general sentiment but :
    1 There’s a trade-off teaching A means B can’t be taught due to time constraints
    2 I don’t know if people would be interested.

    To your question : I wish they would stop shoving dry facts down our throats and start to act more like an enabler. Enable people to develop their way of thinking. Knowing what could be important to solve a problem is much more important than having a formula. I could go on about this but I’ll respect your post and not do that. Nice read and have a nice day!

    • I agree that there’s too much emphasis on dry facts (especially in history classes), and not enough emphasis on the reasoning behind those facts. There’s also a lot of repetitive classes that could be traded for more useful classes. Do students really need 12 years of U.S. history, while ignoring world history prior to 1900?

  22. This is a question I struggle with all the time as a teacher! Where does the teaching end? My school recently decided to add in one period per week to be used as a “life/social skills” time, but how does one prioritize? Such an interesting thing to think about.

    • There are a lot of dead-weight, outdated, repetitive, and useless classes in the current U.S. school system. Replace the repetition with basic economics, basic computer skills, and basic world history. Life/social skills shouldn’t be a class. That’s something students can get (or choose to get) on their own free time.

    • I think one thing ought to be finances, I mean I recently just had to pick up the book Dave Ramsey wrote called “Total Money Makeover” because I have no idea what to expect to pay for in the future. I have no money smarts, I can write a check but I can’t exactly do budgets, and things like that because I have no way to know exactly how much things will cost.

      Whenever we did those budget things in High School they were so badly organized that people could buy Lamborghinis and things like that before they even thought about rent. So if you do something like that, then hand out something like a daily crisis. And expensive daily crises, and do monthly salaries or hourly wages, not that I’m a millionaire stuff. Have a budget that you and your spouse use and be able to explain that.

      maybe have them go through all the way to retirement. Some will say oh I’ll just work til I die or I’ll die early, they kinda get silly with these things, but still, they oughta at least come out with some good budget skills.

      America is indeed a indebted society, so this needs to be done, to show our kids how to do things that will greatly impact their future.

  23. Some of the skills you mention would be addressed if we had well-developed service programs and internships opportunities in schools. Service and other real world work provide students to get some of the practical skills schools fail to teach now.

  24. School should teach (and fail to teach):
    1) Modern Economics. Do you know what an oligopoly is? You should.

    2) World history. Do you know what the Phoenicians contributed to our modern world? What about the Assyrians? Do you know the actual reasons that sparked WWI? Do you know about the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire? You should.

    3) Foreign language choices should include Japanese, Chinese, and Korean. French, German, and Latin are useful, but no more so than the major Asian languages.

    4) Replace outdated or repetitive classes with basic computer skills, and possibly with an introduction to logic and programming. I’m shocked by how many young people don’t understand how to organize or find files.

    5) Teach students how to read, write, and communicate effectively, but make some of the high-end English classes into electives instead of mandatory learning. Analyzing Shakespeare to death won’t help anyone in the real world, unless they become a professor or researcher of Shakespeare.

  25. Great post! But when I think of it, there’s so much being taught at school already that I don’t think my brain would be able to cope if I was given extra things to learn 🙂

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