There’s a belief in this country that every student should graduate from high school with the same standard set of knowledge. This standard curriculum is lengthy, and states spend many years—and plenty of money—creating fancy bullet-pointed lists of the subjects students are expected to know.
Sadly, the list of facts and formulas students need to perform well on a standardized test is freakishly small in comparison. And, because education policymakers have narrowed teachers' focus to these few topics, it becomes tempting to resort to drill-and-kill teaching methods that cover information in a generic, surface-level way. Unsurprisingly, instead of fostering curiosity—which is much more important in the long term than rote memorization—this approach causes students to tune out.
My experience as a classroom teacher has shown me that teenagers are interested in almost anything taught well and with passion. They’re especially engaged by creative, real-world applications of knowledge.
I teach kids how to do their taxes in my calculus class, and they love it. The students know they're going to have to fill out their own tax returns eventually, which is enough to convince them to buy in to the lesson.
Yet taxes generally are completely ignored by the standard high school math curriculum. According to that curriculum, a student will be taught more about conic sections than about the math skills necessary to complete the 1040.
I'm continually amazed how teaching an applicable skill piques students' curiosity and prompts them to do more research. Last year, my students wondered about the claims that wealthy Americans pay more taxes than the rest of us. So they graphed the tax tables, fit functions to them, and reverse-engineered the equations the IRS uses to figure taxable income and tax rates. Other students chose to create a program to analyze which deductibles are worth tracking.
Now that I’ve broadened my approach—and allocated ample time to diving deeper into certain content—these kinds of genuinely interesting projects seem like such obvious ways to engage my students. They not only have a deeper understanding of math, they can also explain how taxation affects populations and their political choices.
Unfortunately, the test-driven push to quickly cover the state-mandated curriculum is growing. As a result, in too many classrooms students feign interest and are afraid to make mistakes. This is not the reflex I want my students to develop, and it should offend anyone who believes that education is about the pursuit of true knowledge.
Our modern information age needs curious, humble minds—people willing to absorb new knowledge, think critically and put information into context. Abandoning a narrow, one-size-fits-all approach to curriculum standards would help students develop the curiosity they need to become the innovators of the future. That matters more than the ability to recall an answer on the test.