There should be a 4th "R"- The Real World
April 13, 2009 4:49 PM   Subscribe

Why aren't life skills taught in schools?

I guess I'm talking about knowledge and skills that pertain to finances, work life, domestic life, social/dating life, the internet, and the law. the education system works, itself. Pretty much the same categories we have here on AskMe.

Wouldn't life be so much easier for us if we learned those sort of things in school or in college?

I mean when I was in high school there was ONE course that taught such things, but it was really really basic stuff. I am speaking of more comprehensive programs.

I'm trying not to get all philosophical here, I am aiming for more concrete is it a funding problem or what? Not enough hard science or research behind those areas? Those are my guesses. For those who are familiar with the educational system, what are some more concrete reasons why such programs are rare?
posted by sixcolors to Education (38 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
maybe it's a difference in school systems?

in my high school, everyone had to take "life sciences" which was budgeting, careers, interviewing, dealing with breakups, and a whole swath of other things. they also offered sociology and home-ec.
posted by nadawi at 4:53 PM on April 13, 2009

We had both home ec (domestic life) and consumer economics (finance) in my high school. i would have died if I had to go to a dating class in high school.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 4:53 PM on April 13, 2009

Surely this question is far too general in it's scope for any answer. Perhaps you have in mind a specific school or school system?
posted by mattoxic at 4:55 PM on April 13, 2009

I think much of that kind of stuff is better left to be experienced, rather than learned in a classroom. It's also not very universal. Maths is maths, no matter who you teach it to, but there's no way a class can coherently teach a Theory of Dating or anything like that
posted by Geppp at 4:56 PM on April 13, 2009

Some countries do: PSHE.
posted by Sova at 4:56 PM on April 13, 2009

I suspect that it's because these topics veer into areas that religious folks, or even non-religious folks, might feel are more the preserve of individual families to impart rather than the school system.
posted by zadcat at 4:56 PM on April 13, 2009

I read this as "why don't they teach still lifes in school?" And I thought, hey, I had to draw some in middle school.

This is a really interesting question though; we had home-ec in middle school but that was about it... in high school we had a life-skills math class, but both of these classes were considered... easy A, stupid-kind of classes, to use the admittedly mean words we used for them. I remember wondering about that; real life skills were for stupid people? Really?
posted by Rinku at 4:57 PM on April 13, 2009

Because there is only so much schools and teachers can do?

Because it further removes society and individuals from feeling like they have any personal responsibility for the next generation.

Sorry. This question just bugged me and although I have a very close friend who's a teacher, I am not one, nor do I have children (although I pay my share of taxes so that they can enjoy public education) -- but still, I think it's part of my responsibility to help the children I do know and care about learn life skills.

I realize you weren't asking for philosophy or opinion -- but I think philosophy and opinion are part of the reason these things aren't taught.
posted by nnk at 4:59 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

social/dating life

This would be an absolute minefield in public schools due to the variety of religious and cultural viewpoints that would have to be considered.

I went to a Catholic high school, so naturally they explained marriage and relationships from that standpoint. I don't know how you'd do that in public school - it's not a neutral topic. (Plus you'd have to bring up TEH GAYZ which would freak out many of the parents.)

We were taught basic personal finance, business skills, domestic skills ("home ec") in high school. We didn't have the Internet yet, but we learned word processing or whatever was available at the time.
posted by desjardins at 5:03 PM on April 13, 2009

Being able to properly write, do basic math and understand basic scientific concepts are life skills.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 5:11 PM on April 13, 2009 [9 favorites]

Best answer: It's because there are no standardized tests relating to life skills (other than life itself, but schools don't make money from that).
posted by idiotfactory at 5:15 PM on April 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

Maybe a better question:

Why don't families do a better job of teaching life skills?
posted by lockestockbarrel at 5:21 PM on April 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I teach life skills. And I teach them in schools, both public and private. I do not work for the schools however; I work for a community-based nonprofit. What typically happens is that a health teacher or a teacher who works with a program like Communities In Schools will invite me in. And I'll either do a one-shot session with them or I'll commit to coming in regularly to do a whole program.

Some of the topics I teach: decision making, values clarification, media literacy, goal-setting, stress reduction, friendships, bullying, dating (healthy relationships), negotiation skills, communication skills, pregnancy and STD prevention, sexual orientation, mental health, healthy eating and exercise, drug/alcohol/tobacco prevention...the list goes on.

All sorts of agencies provide these types of youth development programming and community education both inside and out of schools. Sexual violence prevention agencies, Planned Parenthood, (evil) Pregnancy "Crisis" Centers*, 4-H, YWCA, YMCA, you name it.

That said, however, it is terribly difficult to approach some of these topics (especially almost anything related to sexuality) in the schools themselves. Depending on local laws and politics, it's sometimes impossible. So, much of this type of education happens in after-school programs. Peer mediation, peer health education, leadership programs, financial literacy programs, etc.

I do wish that schools had more of this myself. If we could get the funding and school buy-in, I am positive I could hire at least 20 more of me and the need still wouldn't be met in the public district where I work. As it is, I go to churches, group homes, detention centers and after-school programs to try and bridge that gap.

posted by Stewriffic at 5:22 PM on April 13, 2009 [16 favorites]

There isn't time. There's a limited number of hours available for schooling, and it's been pretty much full for several decades.

Since the advent of television, teachers are absolutely flat out trying to inculcate even basic literacy and numeracy into their students, and this against a rising tide of other fashionable stuff that assorted administrators have seen fit to wedge into the curriculum over the years.

Wouldn't life be so much easier for us if we learned those sort of things in school or in college?

I doubt strongly that most people could learn those things in a formal educational setting.

Most "life skills" boil down to internalizing the idea that other people's behaviour not only is not but ought not be primarily driven by what I want or even what the "cool" people do, and that in order to get what I want, I can and should negotiate.

This is pretty much diametrically opposed to the experience and attitude of most children raised in societies where universal education is available. Worldviews can't really be taught. They have to be learned, and try as you might, you can't put an old head on young shoulders.

When I went to high school, we had one period per week of something called "consumer education". I can't remember a single thing that was presented in that class. I do remember how much energy the class devoted to stirring the con-ed teacher. It was a pure waste of everybody's time.
posted by flabdablet at 5:22 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I also teach parents of teenagers about how to talk to their kids about tough issues. There are a lot of reasons why parents don't talk much about sex, for example. Besides having to get past the awkwardness that both the parent and the child feel, parents don't even necessarily *know* the correct information.
posted by Stewriffic at 5:24 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think life skills should be taught more in high schools as opposed to things like calculus that most people do not ever use but do show up on standardized tests. I wonder whether this has changed over time, it seems like fewer schools are offering auto shop, home ec, wood shop and more are "college prep." Of course my high school didn't even teach sex ed, or hygeine or anything remotely related because it was in the Bible belt and they didn't want to offend anyone.
posted by entropyiswinning at 5:28 PM on April 13, 2009

Best answer: Personal finances not being taught in schools is one of the weirdest shortcomings of public education I think, at least in the U.S. People have been pushing to have this been required curriculum for a while, but it rarely happens.

Then I realized I'm not entirely sure why we don't teach it. I've tried to look up the reasons against it, but either my GoogleFu is bad or it's not easy to find... I found a brief reference to "people oppose it" but no reasons why they oppose it. Generally speaking, I know it's difficult to change the core curriculum; it would require a state law in at least some states, if not most of them. Then you have to have teachers trained to do it. If it was required, there would eventually be teachers for it like everything else, but I think that lack of teachers might be used as an excuse to hold off on changing anything. We already need more teachers than we actually have.

Thinking back to middle and high school, I would bet that part of it is that it's difficult to fit any more into the school day than is already crammed in there; everyone already complains that kids have less and less time for things like fine arts. Then for every subject that a child learns in school, there are teachers that they think don't learn enough of it. That matters a lot when changing the curriculum is a political matter; if you try to add in something new, the idea is you're going to have to axe something old and people are going to fight it. Having worked in a state's rep office, I learned quickly that you can't pass any law, no matter how seemingly simple and innocuous, without pissing some people off. Changes to education are usually shitstorms. Well-meaning shitstorms, at least.

Personally, while I don't like the idea of cutting things out of the curriculum, I think personal finance is definitely more important than some of the things I spent time learning. For example, in Texas I had to take Texas history like three different years, and then it was required again even in college. Texas history is really interesting, but I didn't need to learn it three times, and even if it came down to learning it once versus learning personal finance once, I think it's a no-brainer than personal finance is more crucial to my every day life. I also learned about Greek and Roman mythology three or four times; while that was one of my favorite subjects, I would have gladly traded some of that time for a personal finance class.

Politics isn't as simple as common sense, though. So that's my guess.
posted by Nattie at 5:40 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

My school system taught a bunch of basic life skills (how to write checks, how to balance a checkbook, how to avoid paying outrageous interest on purchases, how to shop for food, how to do laundry effectively, etc., etc.) along with the basic sex and reproduction and drug/alcohol awareness stuff we learned in eighth grade Health class.

Then in ninth grade Civics class we learned a lot of public-citizen skills like how to register to vote, how to write or call (no email then) your local, state, and national representatives, how neighborhood watch groups are organized, etc., etc.

I think a lot of these decisions are made at the school-board level, so it's going to be different from district to district. If nobody on the school board is attentive to these issues, they're likely to be lost in the pressure to prepare for standardized testing.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:40 PM on April 13, 2009

I had a mandatory personal-finance class, but it was largely useless. Trying to build a budget, for example, is really easy when it's entirely in the abstract, just a matter of having X dollars and having to take care of Y expenses, without actually trying to balance finding an affordable place within commuting distance of your shitty job but also having decent schools while hopefully not having an insane neighbor who pees on your dog like the last place and...

When they teach driver's ed, they can do a bit on the blackboard, but until you're actually in the car driving around, you know nothing. I know everything I know now about budgeting, credit cards, etc, but until I actually had my own money to manage... it was pure gibberish. This goes extra-double for high schoolers who, for the most part, don't have meaningful income or expenses to worry about, so they have even less actual perspective to bring to lessons.
posted by Tomorrowful at 5:47 PM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I went to a Catholic high school (1989-1993, for context), and they did teach this stuff. Both by example and formally- the senior year "religion" class was really, surprisingly "liberal" with regards to many of these issues. (And it wasn't just this school, the text was Vatican-approved) Taught by a nun who was definitely made for this kind of work. We covered so many topics in a frank and informative way- sex, marriage, friendships, ethics, morality, decision making, conflict resolution, etc. Obviously, some of it was religious based, but it was definitely "this is what the church says about this topic, and now lets discuss what really goes on". It may have been designed that way, many of the students weren't Catholic and the school was good with that. They just wanted to send their students into the world with an education, not an indoctrination. There is no reason that kind of class couldn't be done in a secular environment, except a lack of will on the part of the educational system. This school managed to not only meet the bare minimum requirements, but exceed them, all the while having an extra religion class all four years. So there IS time in the day. There just weren't as many study hall periods.

Also, the school focused on these kinds of topics by fostering a mature environment. You were responsible for your own actions, everyone was treated with respect, and the rules were the rules and everyone had to follow them. We were all there to do a job, and that was the expectation.

To the nay-sayers: if something can be taught, it can be tested for. Teaching to the test isn't bad, if the test is good.
posted by gjc at 5:47 PM on April 13, 2009

This is probably something you could lobby for in your community.

But I'm in the crowd saying that's what our parents and families are for.
posted by hermitosis at 6:12 PM on April 13, 2009

Being able to properly write, do basic math and understand basic scientific concepts are life skills.

Yeah, but what goes on after 5th grade? ;-)

I DO recall a class where we studied how the stock market works, and how to write a check. But what was lacking (and maybe no longer is, but I doubt it based on my daily work with college students) was information literacy. No need to teach kids how to do everything, but how to learn on their own and make intelligent decisions based on available information seems to be seriously lacking.

This is something parents often can't do, because they aren't familiar with the tools.
posted by coolguymichael at 6:24 PM on April 13, 2009

Quebec's curriculum primary and secondary school curriculum include a course called "moral education." They were designed as a secular replacement to religion courses and gradually took over as the Christianity fell out of favor with Quebecers.

Over time, the scope of the moral education classes widened, and it now includes many of the life skills you mention.
posted by gmarceau at 6:50 PM on April 13, 2009

Best answer: If you believe some people, it's because schooling is actually supposed to do more for preparing you for the world of being a good worker and a good consumer more than being a discerning and fully actualized member of a democratic society. Capitalism the way we practice it un the US necessitates people who are thoughtful but not too thoughtful about the life choices that are available to them. Public schooling teaches enough but not so much that people would be encouraged to choose individualistic paths and self-governance. Public school is supposed to, among other things, get you used to sitting someplace for eight hours a day, more or less blindly following abstract rules and be constantly graded on your intellectual and behavioral performance. There are many normative things that you learn from going to public school that are not necessarily "taught" -- how to fit in, the penalties for not fitting in, how to be on time, the penalties for not being on time, how to take a test, the penalties for not taking a test, etc.

If schooling taught you too much critical thinking, you'd realize that a lot of the systems that you live within are fundamentally flawed and you might want to do something about that. If it taught you a lot of "you and the law" type classes [which I was lucky enough to get in high school] you'd know that the cops were pushing you around and/or couldn't legally take your skateboard away from you. A lot of public schooling is subsidized and/or supported by various corporate interests -- the textbook industry, USDA farm subsidies, coke and pepsi, media conglomerates -- who enjoy the amount of control they have an are unlikely to give it up.

Additionally, America's melting pot status means that it's harder to appropriately teach skills that can be thought of as "cultural" [dating comes to mind immediately] because you get caught in a quagmire of value relativism. It's only really safe in most cases at a high school level to teach thigns that can be more or less 1) agreed upon [i.e. math] 2) tested empirically [i.e. grammar]. You can see the battlefields all over the place when people try to venture even a little outside of those realms and teach about science [evolution!] or social studies [Columbus!] or home ec [cholesterol!]. Not that it doesn't happen but there are a lot of hotly contested things in public education and schools are tending towards less, not more, sticky topics, assuming students will, with any luck at all, get some of that in college. Having to manage this stuff at a federal level -- like the Bush administration did with No Child Left Behind -- makes this sort of thing even more lamely homogenous.

Granted this is just my particular conspiracy theory, but I think as with many conspiracy theories, there is some truth to it.
posted by jessamyn at 7:01 PM on April 13, 2009 [27 favorites]

Response by poster: Why don't families do a better job of teaching life skills?

That would be cool if they did, but it is not realistic. I think the idea of having families to teach their kids life skills would be even harder than trying to get schools to do so.

Some families just aren't equipped to do this. Some are too dysfunctional, some have no education, or some just aren't bright enough to teach their kids how to cope in life. I think teaching life skills in schools will level the playing field for everyone.
posted by sixcolors at 7:39 PM on April 13, 2009

Well, in my school, every class was pretty much either "college prep" or "the ghetto where we put people who aren't going to college" so that anyone who was going to college was discouraged from taking any classes that didn't directly prepare them for that specific task.

Given the increasing number of kids who are expected to go to college, and the fact that any who aren't are shipped off to tech centers (the only way to take something like cooking or woodshop) I would expect to see a steady decline in life skills classes.

Of course, given how poorly they taught English, Math and (especially) Social Studies, I don't think anyone really missed out on a treasure trove of life skills.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:46 PM on April 13, 2009

I'm kind of surprised that people think you couldn't teach finances, domestic life, the law, and the internet in school. Dating would be problematic, but I actually think it would be helpful if schools taught some basic psychology and how interpersonal relationships tend to work.

Also, you can certainly learn all that stuff in college, there are going to be classes on finance and accounting, all kinds of classes about the study of interpersonal relationships, there should be classes that relate to domestic life, etc.
posted by delmoi at 7:56 PM on April 13, 2009

Also, dagnyscott reminds me, I work in a tech center. This is 11th and 12th grade for kids who are generally thought of as not going to college. Kids learn trades and whatnot. Actually nowadays some of these kids learn skills like computer repair and graphic design so that they may not go to college but still get decent jobs. There are also classes in woodworking, diesel repair, automotive stuff, natural resource management, culinary arts (they make my dinner most Fridays) and a lot of people in office skills type classes. For a lot of these kids there is a LOT of life skills training. They learn things like how to interview decently, how to dress appropriately for the workplace, how to not fight with other kids, how to manage a checkbook and/or a budget, how to make an argument, how to not get harassed, what your workplace rights are, etc.

It's thought, I think, that since these kids are not going to college (though some of them do) and many of them have come from bad family situations or are actually parents themselves that part of workplace readiness really is this sort of life skills sort of thing. That if you can't be decent with money, or set and keep a schedule, that you can't keep a job, any job, so in the sense that some of this schooling is vocational -- i.e. preparing you to get a job, not to go on and do more school learning -- they have to make sure that some of the stuff that regular public school may take for granted that "everyone knows" (and as you've stated many do not) has to be explicitly taught.

So this is a rambly way of saying that some schools do teach a lot more of this stuff than others. Working at a tech center you see a lot more life skills molding than at the public school which is right next door.
posted by jessamyn at 8:02 PM on April 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

The first line of jessamyn's answer reminded me of this passage from Prometheus Rising, which may be of interest here:
Reichians, disciples of Dr. Spock and the Summerhill School, etc. have called attention, with some impatience, to the brutality and stupidity of many of our traditional child-rearing methods. These methods are "brutal" and "stupid" only if, like the above-mentioned heretics, one regards the goal of child-rearing as the production of a sane, balanced, creative [NOT CRATED] human being. THIS HAS NEVER BEEN THE GOAL OF ANY SOCIETY IN THE REAL WORLD. The traditional childrearing methods are quite logical, pragmatic and sound in fulfilling the real purpose of society, which is not to create an ideal person, but to create [CRATE] a semi-robot who mimics the society as closely as possible—both in its rational and its irrational aspects, both as the repository of the wisdom of the past and as the sum total of all the cruelties and stupidities of the past. Very simply, a totally aware, alert, awakened (unbrainwashed) person would not fit very well into any of the standard roles society offers; the damaged, robotized products of traditional child-rearing do fit into those slots.
posted by brassafrax at 9:19 PM on April 13, 2009 [5 favorites]

At our last (9th grade) parent meeting, the person at my son's school who helps kids get ready for applying to college noted that many kids away from home for the first time do well academically but really struggle with life skills. So the class advisor asked the parents, “Where do you want to see your child grow?”, and people said: Self Care (Preventing/ameliorating illness, Learning to prioritize, reduce stress, how to live with less, eating properly); Basic Skills (Cooking, Laundry, Shopping, Cleaning, Problem solving); Time Management (Getting enough sleep, Breaking tasks down, Single tasking, Triage, Getting to appointments on time); Relationships (romantic, friends, roommates; How to not lose yourself, Sharing space, Maintaining old friends while making new ones, Compromising, the Art of clean breakups, Distinguishing healthy from unhealthy relationships, Pacing, Relationships with professors/ supervisors, Clear communication skills, phone skills, Establishing clear boundaries); Money Management (Learn the value of things, Checkbook balancing and reconciling, Budgeting, Credit and credit card debt).

Parenting. (Or teaching.) It's simple!
posted by LeLiLo at 10:38 PM on April 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

It still blows my mind that I went to some damn good schools, high school and college, and I still had to teach myself basic financial skills out of a library book in my 30s.

Then I start thinking like Jessamyn and it brings up two key questions: in whose interest is it that I (and people like me) don't learn those skills and who would benefit from us learning them, besides us? In other words, who profits from the current situation (or at least doesn't lose money), versus who would profit from changing it?
posted by gottabefunky at 11:37 PM on April 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I agree with Dagnyscott, I had one mandatory home ec class in junior high where i learned to sew a pillow that looked like a banana and to microwave a potato. Home Ec classes were available in High School but were seen as 'for idiots' classes. The same went for some core classes too. My school counselor steered me away from Geology and into Physics for my science credits because I was an honors student. There was a feeling that if you couldn't figure out things like cooking and personal finance on your own, you were pretty hopeless to begin with. And now I look at the current economy and i think....yeaaah maybe more of us could have benefited from that.
posted by Caravantea at 3:04 AM on April 14, 2009

I think both the question and most of the answers are flawed. Schooling is about learning the skills to learn.
Today I made breakfast for the family, dried out a canvas tent and repacked it, chose meat and fruit from the shops, drove to return some library books, made lunch and dinner, put a baby to sleep twice, hacked out some blackberry bush, folded a mountain of clothes, did some washing up, posted a metafilter question, made some tea and coffee and a hundred other things.
I had an education that showed me how to do none of these things (except how to use the library) but I muddle through, with some success, because my education taught me how to identify when I can work it out myself and where to find more info if I need it.
How would you feel if you had a lesson on tent folding, or how to identify a nice nectarin as a 15yro? I would have sneered at it. The idea that we should be taught everything for every eventuality is a big problem, that causes a lot of problems for our schools.
posted by bystander at 5:52 AM on April 14, 2009 [4 favorites]

Why aren't life skills taught in schools?

Because that is what parents are for.
posted by Brockles at 6:03 AM on April 14, 2009

I agree, this really varies by school district. It's too bad that yours didn't teach it, but it's not necessarily ubiquitous. Some of the things I had to do in school: budget for and plan a wedding, "purchase" a car and house, "invest" in the stock market, campaign for a presidential candidate, interview for a job (as the interviewer and interviewee), balance a checkbook and create a family budget, carry around a Baby Think It Over for three days (oh my god I'm never having children), cook a full meal from appetizer to dessert (including developing some of my own recipes), sew clothes from scratch and mend factory-made garments, take typing classes, and there was some relationship class as well, where we got paired in male/female teams and had to do a presentation on the way couples communicate. I also had to have a job in my junior and senior years of high school, and was graded on attendance, performance, and attitude, in addition to getting paid some paltry sum.

I think I turned out pretty good.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:45 AM on April 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

That is the kind of thing we did in home ec in high school. Sewing, interior design, cooking, and yes, a "Single Survival" and "Family Living" (flour and ThinkItOver babies) set of classes. I had an excellent home ec teacher in school.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:38 PM on April 14, 2009

At least at my school, we did teach financial skills. To 4th graders. We had a fake economy where you were "paid" funny money to arrive at school on time, were penalized funny money for various crimes, and so on. Every friday there'd be an auction you could bring in cheap things to sell for funny money, and the teacher would bring in some fancy pencils supplies to sell. Throughout the year savings and checking accounts were introduced.

I'd wager her husband was well off and ran a bank or something.

In high school, however, financial planning was basically something like a remedial math class. Balance a checkbook. It's kind of assumed that everyone else can pick the easy stuff up and go to college to learn the hard stuff. You could try putting together an elective for "smart kids" but you'd be facing a lot of competition from college credit classes. That's probably the biggest barrier right there to a wider curriculum than remedial math.
posted by pwnguin at 5:02 PM on April 14, 2009

Reminds me of "a valuable lesson" from we the robots webcomic.

Historically the group of people in position of power upon the rest of the population has always tried its best to maintain the population ignorant, fearing that an educated population would rebel.

The church had the control on what was written and who was taught how to read/write. Nowadays the mechanisms are different, but it still revolves around the same things.

I know a perfect illustration of this, in France history and geography have been linked together almost as a single course after germany won the 1871 war, this was done in order to prepare a generation of soldiers eager for revenge and willing to go to war against germany.
posted by izwalito at 4:18 AM on May 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

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