Adulting 101: 10 things they really should teach teenagers at school — and 3 we could do with less of

Photo: Stephen Moorer via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve watched teenagers struggle with the most amazing things in high school and college. Their heads are crammed with Dickens and trigonometry but they can’t make a phone call or cook a meal. Nobody should graduate high school without knowing this stuff. So here are ten things we should teach in school and three things we could squeeze out of the curriculum to make room for them, plus a few bonus skills that teenagers should learn at home.

1 How to write clearly in 21st Century formats

Naturally, this is top of my list. A modern office worker needs to know how to write emails, how to blog, how to use a professional social network like Slack, and how to write and deliver a presentation. Even if you’re a construction worker or a medical assistant, these are skills you’ll need at some point in your life. This is what we should be teaching and practicing in writing classes, not the dreaded and useless 5-paragraph essay.

2 How to evaluate facts

Google and Wikipedia are tools, not sources of truth; they’re dangerous unless you know how to use them and evaluate the results carefully. I gave my younger kid an assignment to find out some facts, then we had a discussion about which sources you could trust, which you couldn’t, and how to tell the difference. Every school should be teaching this, and until they do, every parent should, as well. This is how you vaccinate your child against fake news; as a society, it’s our only real protection against the social spread of ignorance and falsehood.

3 How to make a phone call

Do you have teenagers? Are they terrified to make a phone call? As absurd as this seems to my generation, which spent its teen years blabbing on the phone, there is apparently a plague of telephone phobia afflcting Gen Z. (They’re much more comfortable with text messages, Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr, Instagram, and other environments where you can respond at your own pace in text, emojis, and pictures.) But you can’t succeed in life unless you can call the electric company and straighten out a billing problem, or call in sick to your job. Teens should learn to prepare for a call with a short list of things to ask about or accomplish, and to think a moment about questions the caller is asking — and how to interrupt when the other party is going in a direction that’s not useful. They should then practice by calling each other, and by calling their state representatives, town hall, or librarians.

4 How to promote yourself

Today’s young people are far more likely than previous generations to be independent contractors (videographers, Uber drivers, coders, carpenters) or to have a side hustle. Independent contractors need to be found. So they need the skills to describe themselves on freelance sites, build a simple website, create pages on Facebook, blog, tweet, make videos, or otherwise tell the world who they are what they do. While this generation is better at such things than the ones that came before, they’ll need to develop those skills to compete in the gig economy.

5 How to interact in an office setting

You’re going to have to work in an office at some point. That means showing up on time, interacting with your boss and coworkers, using email, and making conversation. It also means interacting professionally with people of other genders without harassing them or making a fool of yourself. When my oldest worked in my office for a stint, he commented to me, “I feel like I’m pretending to know what to do and everyone else already knows.” I said, “Actually, we’re all just pretending.” The point is to learn how to play the game. Anyone giving short courses on office etiquette?

6 How money and investments work

You’ll be getting a paycheck, hopefully. The government is going to take part of it. You’re going to have to pay rent and file tax returns and budget. You need to know that bitcoin is not a safe investment, and how to think about investing in general. Interest rates (both accrued and paid), the time value of money, and investment risk/return are concepts that every adult should understand, whether in the context of student loans or investing. Math classes should feature more about this and less about the law of sines.

7 What statistics mean

If I tell you that 78% of Democrats want to burn down the capitol, should you believe me? Would it change your mind if you learned that the sample was seven people who live in my dorm? Every student needs a grounding in statistics, so they can evaluate claims they read in the paper, polls, and other official-sounding statistics. This knowledge will be useful for most students for all of their lives, where Algebra 2 will not. And there are masses of material to work with on news sites every day.

8 How to discuss politics and vote intelligently

This is a skill we’ve lost: the ability to listen to and evaluate arguments that differ from your own. Facebook in particular seems to encourage more name-calling than understanding. Where we are now teaching history, we should spend more time on how to evaluate a political argument, how to disagree respectfully, and how to bring facts to bear in an argument.

9 How nutrition works

Teenagers are often learning food habits that will destroy their health as they become more mature. There should be room for wellness and nutrition in the science and health curriculum. This includes how sugar stimulates hunger, why fiber is important, being in touch with when you are hungry, social pressures around eating, wise choices when eating out, and the role of exercise and activity. An investment in this now will pay off in a healthier pool of citizens later.

10 How to operate a fax machine

Just kidding. You only need to know this if you work in a doctor’s office.

Three things we could spend less time teaching

Where is the room in the curriculum for these topics? Easy. Cut back on the stuff we don’t need.

  1. Stop teaching Algebra 2 and Trigonometry. As much as I love math, I don’t see the relevance of these topics for students who aren’t going into science or engineering. Replace them with probability, statistics, and finance and you’ll have done students an enormous service for their futures.
  2. Teach current politics more than history. According to my kids, the history curriculum tends to stop after World War II, just as it always has — there’s just no time to get to current events. But the current reality sprang from the decisions of presidents like John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush. You cannot evaluate the challenges we’re having with President Trump outside of the context of Nixon’s resignation and Bill Clinton’s impeachment. Race, global warming, Islamism, and the nuclear showdown with North Korea are impossible to evaluate without the context of the 60s, the 80s, and the 00s. So teach less about Teddy Roosevelt and more about dictatorships, nationalism, and liberalism in the modern world.
  3. Spend far less time on English Literature. Literature, like history, is part of our shared heritage. But students read way too much fiction, which most of them are never going to write. Study creative nonfiction. Learn to do research and write articles like a journalist. Non-fiction writing skills are far more relevant than Dickens and Austen.

Things teenagers should learn at home: relationships, cooking, and laundry.

Here are some other things young adults need to know that they probably can’t learn at school:

  • How relationships work. What is reasonable to expect from your partner? How will you communicate? How will you discuss and work out problems? How does sex start, and what should partners expect from each other? Porn and sitcoms are poor teachers here. Teenagers must learn about these topics by speaking with and observing their parents — that’s awkward, but not as bad as failing to discuss it. And if you think your home situation isn’t a great one to emulate, perhaps it’s worth exposing your teens to other people’s families.
  • How to cook. If you go to college and you don’t know how to cook an egg, steam some broccoli, or make a batch of pasta, you’re going to be a very sad adult.
  • How to do laundry. My oldest tells me that when he got to school he was amazed at the freshmen who didn’t know how to use laundry machines properly. My kids have been washing their own clothes since puberty.
  • How to pump gas. Yes, you can do it.
  • How plumbing and electrical stuff works. You have circuit breakers. You have water cutoff valves. Learn how to use them.

I’m sure there’s a lot more, as you’ll tell me in the comments. But these are a good start.

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  1. As a former high school English teacher my soul was bruised by the Austen and Dickens hit–but I have to agree. The goal shouldn’t be to make English majors (or math, science, art, or history majors, for that matter). It’s to practice the tools that will help them keep digging on their own, and help them recognize the scholastic vein of gold when they see it.

    My eldest is now off in college dorms, and I follow a parent group for that university on Facebook. It’s shocking to read where parents feel they need to intervene: Where to get a haircut? How to patch a tear in a down coat? Step away, parents, step away!

  2. How to interview for a job – even a part-time job. My daughter (18) interviewed to work at a local pet shop. During the interview she detailed all the days/weekends she would need off. The interview took place just as holiday shopping kicked off, so you know the outcome.

  3. I agree with most of your recommendations. My primary disagreement is with teaching less literature.

    People, particularly when interpersonal relationships are involved, need to be able to communicate in a way that is more nuanced, and “softer” than business-type, near-brute-force communication skills allow. Reading literature provides an opportunity to “observe” that sort of approach. It’s one way to learn to understand arguments and to think critically, as well.

    I’m an engineer, so people may find it ironic that I’m the one saying this, but the arts are important to a foundation in critical thinking, as well as to giving people an opportunity to be different than “all work and no play.” Literature is art.

    Literature, particularly when most everyone studies essentially the same major titles and genres, also serves to give society a generally-common lexicon of ideas and words. That kind of lexicon is necessary to social discourse, in my opinion.

    I absolutely loved your recommendations to:

    * Have students learn stats.
    * To revamp history teaching. I’d go slightly more generically in my solution than you on that one, though. The concept of history class should be more focused on how to think critically about the world, and how the countries and people in it interact on a macro scale.

    My one remaining question is: If you replace trig and algebra 2 (and other higher math, I assume) with more “plebian” content, are you not suggesting that schools should essentially remove the chance for students who want to go on to STEM careers? The number of hours available for school is (still) a zero-sum game, after all. Where you put one thing into a curriculum, some other thing(s) must come out.

  4. Couldn’t agree with you more. I would also bring back debate clubs where students are asked to argue a case from various perspectives. Also a Toastmasters-type class or club. I volunteered at an after-school program for a while, and I used to bring in newspaper clippings for someone to read to the group and comment on — many of the kids’ parents couldn’t speak English, so there weren’t any newspapers at home. As for relationships, a young filmmaker friend turned me on to SKAM — a Norwegian teen drama series (you can find it online at Dailymotion). Each year focuses on a different couple from a group of friends. The viewer empathizes with each person in turn, and so many topics are covered in a way they could never be in a classroom.

  5. Are there creative nonfiction writers you think people should read and emulate? What thoughts if any do you have on John McPhee?

    1. John McPhee is a zen master. His techniques are obscure and hard to imitate, even if the results are excellent. For teaching, I prefer more straightforward stylists such as Isaac Asimov, Mary Roach, and Malcolm Gladwell. I have also blown students’ minds with a little Tom Wolfe.

  6. Like Joanne Ritter said, a Toastmasters-style club and debate clubs where you are required to argue points from multiple angles. Add how to listen and diffuse a heated argument (that angry customer across the counter is NOT going to send you a text; you need to deal with the situation, face-to-face). Basic psychology, sociology, and medically-sound sexuality education. If people are going to be heavily dependent on the “gig” or entrepreneur economy, they need to learn how to launch a business, hire a staff, and run a business (basic psychology and sociology are part of this). A class where all people need to contribute simultaneously in the public eye, such as musical instrument performance, acting, or group singing. These help with poise and artistic growth. Speaking a foreign language gives a person compassion for others who don’t speak a language perfectly, and it helps give insights into another culture. More hands-on and field trips: don’t just study plant biology’s phylum and genus– go visit greenhouses, grow a garden at school.

  7. How about teaching empathy? Along with critical thinking, empathy is an essential life skill. It helps us to listen to and understand a different point of view or life experience. History and fiction are two key parts of the curriculum (in NZ where I teach) that contribute to learning empathy. When kids start to make sense of how ordinary people went along with Nazi views or apartheid they learn important lessons about dictatorship and nationalism that apply right now. That’s historical empathy. Fiction is a great vehicle for vicarious experience. It is an efficient way to taste an alternative life, to stand in the shoes of someone you will never be. It teaches empathy. Both fiction and creative non-fiction can do this. I think it’s useful to select texts from both categories that engage the particular group of students concerned. This helps kids learn that reading can be satisfying rather than a big yawn. I want them to leave school as willing readers, open to exploring other lives and other views.

    I totally agree that writing time is far better spent on formats students will actually use. Noone would ever read a school essay unless they were paid to do it. Learning to write something that is easily understood and interesting is another fantastic way to develop empathy. You have to think about your audience. And to do that you do need good research and investigative skills. I’m completely with you on that.

    I think I will use this blog post of yours as part of my introduction to English for some of my classes this year. Lots of thought-provoking material for them to get their teeth into. Thank you!

  8. I would love to teach adulting. It blows my mind these days of what young adults don’t know.
    From cooking a simple meal, sewing on a button, to budgeting.