Practical skills or book learning: What should public education focus on?


Fact Box

  • Book learning is defined as “knowledge acquired by reading books, as distinguished from that obtained through observation and experience.”
  • Home economics classes, which were once taught in most schools, have been steadily phased out across the country. Experts claim that the reasons for the decline are that the classes don’t develop marketable skills, are dwarfed by the demand for STEM classes, and that most people share “a belief that professional work is more valuable than domestic work.” 
  • One of the tenets of the Common Core State Standards’ ideology is that a student learns by “understanding topics, not from rote memorization, but from true understanding of the concept, as well as applying that knowledge to different situations.”
  • A 2019 survey commission by H&R Block found that the “average American uses just 37 percent of the information they learn in school,” with the top-five skills that people wished they had learned in school being “money management and budgeting, how to do taxes, how to manage your well-being, understanding loans and how to negotiate.”

Zoe (Book Learning)

While public education does not necessarily need to exclude teaching practical skills, the basis of any education must always be book learning. Book learning is simply an accumulation of factual knowledge, the synthesis of which builds critical thinking. It does so by challenging students to make connections between different pieces of information they learn. And it is with these connections that a student can begin to understand how the world functions.

A public education that focused solely on practical skills would be lacking because, as educational experts say, 'theory teaches you through the experience of others.' By way of lectures and asking questions, theoretical learning, or book learning, steadily fills in the gaps of a student's existing body of information and practical experience. Without this knowledge, children would learn how to perform basic functions, but they wouldn't have the larger context. For example, suppose a student was taught only how to file their taxes but was not told how the government and the tax system works. They wouldn't know where their money is going or why they have to pay it in the first place, which could be problematic. 

Book learning does not have to be purely dry and factual, either. Teaching methods such as retrieval practice have shown that by encouraging students to participate actively in learning rather than passively listening to a lecture, students become more engaged. 

Finally, book learning allows children to see the world that extends beyond their own day-to-day lives. Many children don't have the opportunity to travel, but they can learn about other countries and cultures from books and lectures. For these reasons, book learning is essential.

Sheryll (Practical Skills)

It is a common complaint among many students in the public education system that school has failed to equip them with any 'real-life' skills. A significant number of young adults say that it was long after they had already graduated that they picked up practical skills, such as investing and budgeting, that were much more valuable to them than what they were taught in school. This points to a gap in the current education system and suggests that the curriculum should be revised to incorporate more practical forms of learning. 

Research shows that focusing on practical education can boost a student's self-esteem and enhance their transition into working life. This is because equipping students with a large variety of practical skills will provide them with an array of experiences that can prepare them for life after education. For example, teaching young children how to cook could help encourage them to adopt healthy eating habits as they grow older.

Many industries throughout the world are also beginning to prioritize vocational and practical skills over paper qualifications. One study in the UK found a significant mismatch between the skills needed by businesses and those held by workers, with nearly 40% of openings in skilled trades being due to skills shortages. Thus, one could argue that most economies would not be able to grow or compete globally if practical skills are not incorporated into public education. 

Therefore, for schools to maintain their usefulness and connection to real life, practical skills must be put at the forefront of learning.

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