10 Basic Principles of Our School System, Part 9: Subjects

  1. homework
  2. class tests, tests and exams
  3. grades
  4. schoolbooks
  5. the curriculum
  6. 45/90-minute lessons
  7. class size
  8. age-based classes
  9. subjects
  10. teacher focus

We’re moving closer towards the finishing line and for the penultimate chapter we look at something that’s similar to the curriculum, the idea of dividing school in different subjects to be taught. Again, it’s something we consider to be natural and hard to imagine any other way, but if you break it down, it becomes somewhat problematic (as anything else, I guess).

When people talk about subjects, the conversation almost always follows a similar path. Some say they don’t like Maths, others don’t like German or English, some favor Biology or Geography and (almost) everyone agrees that you don’t need Religious Education or Art. Especially the last two are always heard in any discussion about subjects, some say the same about PE (or Sports). There is never any big agreement and mostly students still accept this as “the way things are.” It’s annoying, but what can you do?

The underlying issue of these conversations is simple: not everyone likes the same things. Obviously, the curriculum doesn’t care about that, but two questions remain: Why does everyone have to do the same subjects and why are they all separated? The official answer to the first question is that everyone needs the same “basic knowledge” which is fine and all, but when it comes to being graded and to having these subjects for 10 years, even if you hate them and are bad at it, basic knowledge doesn’t cut it. Look, imagine you really don’t like Biology (which at least only starts in 5th grade), it’s just not your thing. Your teacher is good and motivated, you try, but you just don’t care about the birds and the bees and the genes, it’s not your thing, you just like other things more, but, dammit, you just can’t wrap your head around this stuff. It is very certain that you will never need this in your future life because, well, you have other interests. Over the years this becomes worse, you have to suffer through yet another year of topics you, at best, are mildly interested in but still have to write test and exams about. It becomes that “problem subject” that you never wanted, never chose and can’t get rid of until your graduation. If you’re lucky, you only have one of these.

Everyone knows that feeling from school (apart from those few geniuses who are good at everything) and it sucks. It feels unfair because it is. And another problem is the separation of these subjects because they reinforce the fact that each subject seems useless for real life. If there were more connections between the subjects (and they are obviously there), then each subject would make much more sense to everyone. The point of basic knowledge shouldn’t be compartmentalized, isolated islands of knowledge. Our brain works much better with connections and associations, so if we opened up the subjects more, if there were more discussions between teachers, this could be much more useful.

Again, this is what alternative schools are doing successfully for years. Connecting the subjects and giving the students more choice in what their subjects are. You waste so much time studying stuff you will never need, simply because it doesn’t have any meaning for you personally. Early on, we don’t allow students to follow their interests and then wonder why they are not interested. Yes, sometimes you discover something intriguing within a subject that you thought was boring. But how often does that happen and is it necessary to make everyone go through every subject for years and years, just for that little chance? Is it really worth all the frustration?

What do you think?