How Would You Revise the General Curriculum?

Recently at work, I’ve had a lot of data files to go through– The instrument I’m using spits out data as a series of (hundreds of…) text files, each with about eighty pieces of data. Rather than go through that by hand, I sat down and wrote a little script to collate the data for me into one, organized file. A co-worker was amazed by this– which got me thinking: There’s only going to be more computers in the future. Should at least a little bit of programming be a required subject in school? What else could be revised?

In my mind, I’d say that there are some subjects so core that I can’t imagine calling something an “education” if it lacked them: reading/writing, basic math (simple 2x = 23, solve for x level algebra, at the very least), world history, some review courses of the social sciences (politics, psychology, etc), and some basic science (a little general chemistry/biology/physics, not even calculus; with an understanding of the scientific method). If you learned just that much, I’d say you should at least pass high school.

But what would I add on top next, to create a good, general education? Firstly, something that is usually a rare elective would be front and center– I think everyone going further into academia than high school should be required to take a class on Logic. I couldn’t take symbolic logic until I was a junior in college, and it would have helped so much in so many classes. Secondly, learn some calculus– it’s math that will help you understand trends, patterns, and ideas in fields from physics to economics to sociology. I also agree that foreign language requirements make sense. And, as I started this thought with- I think, these days, that a programming class (not a typing class or a “play with hypercard” class– a basic introduction to something like javascript and C++) should be in the bare minimum undergraduate college curriculum. I’d also add that a class in Ethics might be a good idea, but I’m not sure that will ever fly. Add on more stringent writing classes, some more broad review classes in the hard and soft sciences, and you’ve got a generally useful base to serve as a foundation for a degree (and the attendant specialized classes it requires).

But that’s just my feelings. I actually think about these issues a lot, since I want to be an educator when I “grow up”. Even at the level of a single class, it’s important to ask yourself “what is the bare minimum that the students must know for me to feel like I’ve taught them?” You can’t set the bar too high– you’ll cover a lot more, and some students will learn everything you throw at them and more (and should be encouraged through private discussions, extra opportunities, etc), but having a good sense of the baseline, the minimum helps me know what to reinforce, time and time again.

How would you change school curricula, if you could?

22 Responses to “How Would You Revise the General Curriculum?”

That’s a toughie. I think in you should take a foreign language in elementary school, when your little brain is the most amenable to learning new languages and not wait until high school to do it. I like the idea of more computing, but it would ideal (in my mind) if you could integrate it into other subjects so that it seems less forced. Also, something like a modern home-ec, where the focus is on finances and such. I think teaching those basic skills (balancing a checkbook, making a budget, how loans work, etc) would be good, since not everybody gets more schooling after high school.

As far as my undergraduate days, I wish that my molecular biology major had a statistics requirement. That was my biggest complaint, but I can also see the utility in some computer programming (or if not programming, SOME kind of computer class).

ShortSpeedFreak - March 17th, 2008 at 5:04 am

shortspeedfreak: Also, something like a modern home-ec, where the focus is on finances and such. I think teaching those basic skills (balancing a checkbook, making a budget, how loans work, etc) would be good, since not everybody gets more schooling after high school.

That’s a great idea– hell, I’m still not sure if I really understand the basics of finance.

Paradoxdruid - March 17th, 2008 at 9:28 am

That’s why I suggested it! I still have lots of questions of my own about that stuff and it seems like a useful skill set for people to have.

ShortSpeedFreak - March 18th, 2008 at 5:18 am

Yep. Personal finance education is something that’s woefully missing in the modern educational system. (If you have any financial questions, I’ve studied this stuff pretty extensively and would be happy answer any of your questions.)

Ted - March 18th, 2008 at 1:12 pm

Other than the basic finance class idea, some other ideas that I think are quite important that were mentioned are more computer-related courses and more foreign language requirements.

A course on just “these are the components that make up a computer” should be essential these days for all high school kids. Everyone uses them — everyone should know how they work, at least the basics (while we’re on the topic of knowing how things work, it’d be really nice to have a course on how a basic engine functions — maybe it could all be one big “how technology works” course?).

I feel rather bad saying this, but it seems like the importance of knowing foreign languages is decreasing — the world’s becoming a smaller place with the internet, and English is becoming the predominant language. Still, I think it’s important to know foreign languages.. Andrew and I have talked multiple times about taking a course in Chinese..

Going along a little with ParadoxDruid’s requirement for a Logic course, I think a course in “critical evaluation of media” would be essential in this day and age — we’re constantly bombarded with media, either on the news, newspaper, or online (so much information to sift through online!) and it’d be good for students to be given critical tools to evaluate all this material and its validity. I know a few people who prefer to avoid most media (including the internet) rather than spend the time to differentiate between trash and valuable information, and I think they’re missing a lot, but then you’ve got the other extreme where people too easily believe what they read/see…

teisha - March 18th, 2008 at 2:43 pm

Thanks for the offer, Ted! I’ll keep it in mind. 🙂

Teisha, I agree with you that as the world “shrinks” knowing a foreign language is less important. However, I, too, think that it’s good to learn another language or two. If nothing else, at least it stimulates your mind. And I think that some of the major non-English languages (Chinese and Spanish, for example) will probably take a long time to die out. Though, I could be very wrong.

I love your idea for a media course! That would have been a much better way to spend our time in that Norlin critical thinking class than what we actually did, don’t you think? 🙂

ShortSpeedFreak - March 19th, 2008 at 4:54 am

Recently at work, I’ve had a lot of data files to go through– The instrument I’m using spits out data as a series of (hundreds of…) text files, each with about eighty pieces of data. Rather than go through that by hand, I sat down and wrote a little script to collate the data for me into one, organized file.

Okay this is a tangent and I promise to make it short but… EEEE! That’s what I do for a living! The nuts and bolts of it at least. What tools are you using? My favoritest ever is awk. I’m especially proud of this, written just yesterday:
awk -F, -v legFID=$legFID_files ‘BEGIN{getline header; print header};{CMDfindLink = “fgrep -h -i ” substr($3,3) $2 ” ” legFID; printf $1 “,” $2 “,”; system(“[ -e ” $3 $2 ” ]”) ? system(CMDfindLink) : system(“echo ” $3 “\n”)}’ $fid_input | awk -F, ‘BEGIN{getline header; print header}; {print $1 “,” $2 “,” substr($3,match($3,/.:\//),(RSTART -match($3,/\/[^/]*$/))*-1+1)}’ > $fid_out

Basically, it checks to see if a file in a list exists. If it doesn’t, the script looks in this other list of files to see if it exists there. There are various bits of printing and reformatting in there too.

Back on topic…
I resoundingly second (third?) the class on personal finance. This is something I’ve actually talked about with other people too.

I’ve also thought Atlas Shrugged, or at least The Fountainhead should be required high school reading. Not because I necessarily agree with the philosophy presented but because I think it presents an important viewpoint that will help combat this “victim” mentality that is more and more prevalent.

Mallorn - March 19th, 2008 at 8:21 am

It’s interesting that you present Objectivism as the (only) solution to today’s victim mentality. 🙂 I actually think that its belief in the pursuit of only rational self-interest is actually antagonistic to a functioning society. But I digress. 😉
I do agree that there’s a pervasive culture of victimhood. I just think that more than educational changes would be needed to do anything about it. Like maybe a culture that valued and respected better child-rearing and had shorter work-weeks so parents could spend time with children. So, probably not going to happen any time soon (in the USA).

My program looks wimpy compared to yours, Mallorn. It’s a big, inefficient bash script:

#say hello
kdialog –msgbox “Signalyze ATR Data Converter\nPress OK to select working directory”
#navigate to proper directory
DIRECTORY=`kdialog –getexistingdirectory .`
#get necessary info from user
NAME=`kdialog –title “Trial Name” –inputbox “Name of your trial”`
#non-gui: read -p “Trial Name? ” NAME
echo $NAME” Trial Set” > $DIRECTORY/$NAME.csv
echo -e “Seq\tPoint\tIntegral\tsd” >> $DIRECTORY/$NAME.csv
SEQNUM=`kdialog –title “Probe Sequences” –inputbox “How many probe sequences”`
#non-gui: read -p “How many probe sequences? ” SEQNUM
POINTS=`kdialog –title “Data” –inputbox “How many data points were collected”`
#non-gui: read -p “How many Data Points? ” POINTS
SET=`kdialog –title “Sets” –inputbox “Which set in the trial is the data in (i.e. kinetics-WHAT)”`
#non-gui: read -p “Which set in trial (i.e. kinetics-WHAT)? ” SET
sequences=(`kdialog –title “Probe names” –inputbox “What are the names of your probe sequences (space separated)”`)
#non-gui: echo “Names of probes sequences (space separated):”
#non-gui: read -a sequences
#increment the number of data points, since the ATR doesn’t use 0
#define a function to grab data
seqgrab() {
for ((i=1;i<$TRIALS;i++)); do
data=`cat $DIRECTORY/kinetics-“$SET”_$i.stx | grep $1 | cut -f 5`
sd=`cat $DIRECTORY/kinetics-“$SET”_$i.stx | grep $1 | cut -f 6`
echo -e $1 “\t” $i “\t” $data “\t” $sd >> $DIRECTORY/$NAME.csv
#tell about our progress
dcopRef=`kdialog –progressbar “Initialising” ${#sequences[@]}`
#echo “Working…”
#iterate through the data files
for ((n=0;n<${#sequences[@]};n++)); do
seqgrab ${sequences[${n}]}
dcop $dcopRef setProgress $n
dcop $dcopRef setLabel “Working…”
#echo “Processed “${sequences[${n}]}
dcop $dcopRef close
#echo “All done!”
kdialog –textbox $DIRECTORY/$NAME.csv 440 200
exit 0

Paradoxdruid - March 19th, 2008 at 11:01 am

Oooo…but yours has a GUI AND a function!

You should use awk in your function 😉
for fid in list_of_files_to_cut_data_from
data=`awk -Ffieldseparator ‘{print $5}’`

I’ve hijacked this thread. I’ll stop now 😛

Sorry all!

Mallorn - March 19th, 2008 at 11:28 am


data=`awk -Ffieldseparator ‘{print $5}’ $fid`

Mallorn - March 19th, 2008 at 11:28 am

Some exposure to logic would really be a good thing. I don’t know if going as far as requiring something like symbolic logic would be necessary (though I did enjoy taking that one). Just having a week or two of introducing some concepts of what makes logical arguments would be a great component for basic writing classes. Looking back it’s kind of amazing that we got some of that in lower level philosophy classes, but not in any of the writing classes I took.

I agree with shortspeedfreak that having some stats as would be useful. Sorry druid, but it actually probably would be useful to more people than calculus.

It would have been nice have some exposure to some basic programming. I’ve kind of picked up some scripting ability as I’ve needed to, though it’s still pretty ugly and have learned a little fortran needing to hack the ancient program my boss uses for running molecular dynamics simulations. In hindsight I would have liked to have some formal exposure to something like that, though I’m not sure if I would have thought it would have been useful while I was an undergrad. It’s actually kind of weird looking back, we really didn’t have much in the the way of computational people in our department, I can’t even think of seeing seminar speakers doing heavy computational work. Where I am now two of the professors in our program are pure computational people, and there’s a fair number of people like my advisor that dabble as well as doing experimental work.

mcmillan - March 19th, 2008 at 12:11 pm

Mallorn, just because awk can do the job that cut was designed to do, doesn’t mean that it’s better at it. 🙂

Ted - March 19th, 2008 at 12:46 pm

Mcmillan, you’re probably right– Statistics would probably serve people better for most careers (and might help with the general level of blind belief in the media and polls).

Ted: Mallorn, just because awk can do the job that cut was designed to do, doesn’t mean that it’s better at it. 🙂

I believe this qualifies as a burn. Are you going to just take it, Mallorn? 😉

Paradoxdruid - March 19th, 2008 at 2:01 pm

Ted: Mallorn, just because awk can do the job that cut was designed to do, doesn’t mean that it’s better at it. 🙂

You know, Ted, you’re right. Cut >> awk. BUT… awk >>>>>> grep, at least in the case of very, very large files. Grep segfaults with a memory exhausted failure. I know this because it happened to me. Yesterday.

There’s also a readability enhancement, although that ruins some of the fun.

And the fact that YOUR MOM uses awk.

So there. 😛

PD: I believe this qualifies as a burn. Are you going to just take it, Mallorn? 😉 🙂

Yep. Until I get back to work the next day 😉

Mallorn - March 20th, 2008 at 7:24 am

Sorry to kill the topic 🙁

In a feeble attempt to restart it…

Should we really be revising the current curriculum to add new subjects when students can’t even read? What should we be doing so that students are prepared to take these extra subjects?

Mallorn - March 20th, 2008 at 12:07 pm

In my opinion, it all comes down to Assessment. Right now, we can’t really identify the good teachers from the bad ones. Until we can somehow assess teachers, get rid of the bad ones, and reward the good ones, most of our country’s educational problems will be very hard to solve. Other countries do it somehow, but they have a different culture regarding education, and many of them are either very small, or have the same problems we do in the lower-ends of their school systems.

Ted - March 20th, 2008 at 1:31 pm

Very good points, Ted. I was speaking with a co-worker whose mother is a K-12 teacher about this topic, and she just laughed and said, “My mother doesn’t know these topics. Who will teach her?” and commented on how poorly teachers are paid and respected in our culture.

So, will it just get worse? Will I need to enroll my children in snooty private schools? 😉

I certainly don’t think so, or I wouldn’t be planning to go into teaching. But it’s a big challenge for our society to face.

Paradoxdruid - March 20th, 2008 at 1:39 pm

Yes, I think a lot of it has to do with the lack of respect, not to mention financial support, our culture gives to public school teachers.

What it probably comes down to is where our government is spending its money — if more of it were going into education, and less into, for example, the military, it’d probably do wonders to address this problem. I didn’t mean for this to become a political debate, but it probably has a great deal to do with improving our education system…

teisha - March 20th, 2008 at 2:29 pm

Well, if you factor in the value of their pension, teachers are actually pretty well paid. The unions have realized that it’s much easier to get pay hikes as pension improvements than real pay, as pensions are in the future, and there’s a lot of value in being considered “under-paid”. When a teacher retires after 30 years, most of them receive a pension that is about equivalent to receiving a million dollars cash.

Starting pay for teachers is pretty low, but in many ways, the supply is too high. There are lots of people who want to be teachers, and unless we can reduce that supply by increasing standards, increased pay is only going to increase the supply more.

Ted - March 20th, 2008 at 3:09 pm

well, that good pension is (in most cases) only because teachers are state employees — the good pension is for state or other government employees, not specifically limited to teachers (at least in Colorado, where I know the pension system). I’ve worked as a teacher (briefly), and I’ve worked as a non-teacher state employee, and boy, it’s a LOT easier to be a non-teacher (and earn that same pension). I, too, will retire with a pension that will pay out about a million dollars if I live a normal lifespan. I earned it at a university desk job, in which I also felt underpaid the first 7-8 years of the job. But the desk job doesn’t have anything close to the often grueling demands of teaching in a K-12 public school.

When I earned my California teaching credential (around 1989), approx half of all newly credentialled teachers were no longer teaching after 5 years. There is a tremendous ‘over supply’ of credentialled teachers, but that doesn’t mean that the best are necessarily the ones who stay in the profession. The demands of working in the K-12 classroom, which are extraordinary, would definitely be lightened with more money — not necessarily for teacher’s salaries, but for more teachers and teachers’ aides. Instruction in programming (or art or music or ethics, etc) would best be taught by a specialist — and these are exactly the first programs to get chopped during budget cuts. Elementary school classroom teachers benefit when the students get ‘taken out’ for their specialty classes, so the teacher has some preparation (and mental health!) time. Teachers also benefit when class size is small and when they have qualified help in the classroom, and both these things cost money.

sorry, now the original post about curriculum is heading toward the age-old argument about teacher pay and demands!

So many of these ‘specialty’ topics are best introduced in elementary school — many scientific concepts are self-constructed by children (correctly or incorrectly) during these years, and of course foreign language and music are both particularly ripe for development during this time. But the elementary school years (and the rest of K-12) are the ones that get regularly get the shaft, financially, in our society.

now i’ll stop… sorry for the soap-boxing!

Meg - March 21st, 2008 at 10:06 am

I must admit, I was a little shocked at first by Ted’s comment– Despite large pensions, I think very few people would argue that there is enough money in K-12 education in the USA.

Meg: The demands of working in the K-12 classroom, which are extraordinary, would definitely be lightened with more money — not necessarily for teacher’s salaries, but for more teachers and teachers’ aides.

I think that’s a good point, though. The lack of money may not directly be money for teachers, but rather for teacher quality of life.

I had a phone conversation with Meg, where she elaborated on her point, and brought up an interesting sidenote: That our desired subjects reflect our biases pretty well– I want more science and philosophy, for instance. Why aren’t we clamoring for more art? Is it because we’re all smart enough to know what’s best? Or is it because, although art would be useful, there are things more desperately needed by our country?

Paradoxdruid - March 22nd, 2008 at 2:00 pm

As an addendum, Robert X Cringley has a column up at PBS about how technology, or rather the mental changes from a generation that grew up googling rather than memorizing, are poised to change traditional education. Thought it might contribute.

Paradoxdruid - March 22nd, 2008 at 2:06 pm

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