What is school for?

What is school for in the modern day? It's a question posed by Seth Godin's TED Talk on education accompanied by his 139-minute Medium article as well as a topic of conversation from time to time over a late night glass of wine...

It's true. The American education system hasn't changed much in the past century, yet society as a whole has evolved immensely from the industrial revolution to the digital era we all know today. You know that infamous multiple choice test? It was actually invented during World War I as the easy and efficient way to keep the mass production of students moving forward - yet, it's still a big part of our school system today.

We were taught and trained to be obedient factory workers at the turn of the 20th century, and it worked...at that time. However, can the same rote memorization techniques have a place in the future of education? In a world dominated by machines?

That's a big question. But if I were to re-design my own education with what I know now about the "real world," these are some of the classes I'd think would be extremely beneficial:


Personal Finance

Time and time again, you hear about the pitiful American savings rate of 4%. I really don't understand the logic especially growing up in a traditional Chinese family that saves up to 50% on average. Living below your means is one thing and being aware of your actual spending is another. But many of us enter the real world with no real knowledge of how to handle money. Your gross salary does not equate what's deposited in your bank account. Yes, there are taxes other than sales tax. Did you know you actually lose money if you leave it in your checking account (with inflation)? Again, I'm all for experiences but not if I go broke acquiring them.

It's a fairy tale for us up until we graduate from college (for those who do), and then we hit the real world. Some times mommy and daddy won't be there. Oh crap, where did this interest payment from my "stable" federal student loans come from? Personal finance isn't rocket science. Some basic math and common sense (don't spend more than you have) can go a long way in the real world. It ought to be a mandatory education requirement.

 

Professional Skills

This will vary from profession to profession but most of us will agree that experience is King. Who knew mastering Microsoft Excel would lead to 70% of my success in both my consulting and finance jobs? But never did I take a Microsoft Excel class (nor was I informed) during my Business Economics program at UCLA. There are countless professional and technical skills that I wished I was taught before hitting the real world. For example, if I was hoping to start my career off in Public Accounting, it would've been invaluable to take a beginning to intermediate class in Microsoft Excel, PowerPoint, and Interviewing 101.

 

Communication and Presentation

Growing up, no one tells you that raising your hand in class would help you out in your career. The only times most of us did were when my grade depended on it. Nor did we do much team work. However, upon entering the real world, I soon realized communication was key. 

When I took a job with Universal Pictures in their Strategic Planning group, little did I know that I'd actually have to speak up in meetings and present to crowds of 50+. I was scared beyond belief of public speaking. It was that moment where I had to force myself to take a Toastmasters class (one of the best decisions I've ever made!) to learn how to communicate with confidence. I'm still working on that...but I believe it'd be beneficial for students to confront these fears in the classroom before the real world.

 

How to Write (Effectively)

Who knew the importance of a well-written email? "Good morning, take care, and thank you!" Not only in the business sense but the power of a well-written letter can spark wonders. Besides email, the power of the written word cannot be stressed enough. Empathy. Yes, learning how to write effectively teaches you empathy as well because you start placing yourself on the other end of the spectrum - what would that person think when he/she reads this?

 

Creativity and Innovation

In an age of automation and technology, educators and leaders alike believe creativity and innovation are some of the most important traits for future success. I remembered once upon a time being a sugar-addicted, can't-stop-won't-stop kid that doodled magic kingdoms and fire-breathing elephants in his middle school notebook. But I don't know what happened...I guess I grew up to structure. But schools like Stanford's d.school are hoping to bring the kid back into the adult by restoring one's creative confidence.

 

Empathy

Especially in an extremely divided world, empathy is a skill that can be taught...and it's better taught while young. The media has this power of distorting perspectives to the extreme. Traveling for me has been one of the most transformative forms of education in instilling a greater sense of empathy and curiosity of the world. It started with studying abroad in college, but it taught me how to be more empathetic and continue exploring. How do we instill a sense of empathy for future generations?

 

Teamwork and Leadership

The value of teamwork cannot be more instrumental in business and life success. I wish it was taught earlier in school through team projects instead of multiple choice exams. At the same time, many students form leadership skills through clubs, teams, and organizations that prove to be invaluable later in life. I think more emphasis on teamwork and leadership in classes would have been extremely helpful in preparation for the real world.

 

Productivity

This would be a really cool elective. 80/20 rule? Pomodoro technique? Writing down the most important tasks in the morning? Use a password manager?

There are more than enough productivity hacks in the world and while some work and some don't, it's important to learn what works for you. Learning productivity hacks has saved me a lot of time and mental energy. Practical. 


If I had the chance to revisit college (or high school), these are some of the classes and skills I would've loved to learn. The world continues to evolve, and it's never been more important to learn how to deal with a future run by machines and human emotions. Just my 2 cents.