Opinion

BIDLACK | What do Colorado kids need to learn in school? Curiosity

Author: Hal Bidlack - August 7, 2018 - Updated: August 6, 2018

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Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

A recent article in Colorado Politics told of Colorado’s Education Leadership Council and their work, ordered by Gov. Hickenlooper in 2017, to explore what Colorado’s kids need to learn in school in order to be well positioned for success in life in the 21stCentury. The Council has even set up an on-line survey for Coloradans to let the Council know what regular folks think should be taught in schools. It’s an interesting survey, and I urge you to take a look.

I admit to my biases right up front. First, I’m 60, and so I am of that generation that took a class in cursive as well as what was cleverly called “touch typing.” I memorized multiplication tables (though 7 times 8 still takes me a second to figure out) and bought a bottle of Whiteout when I had to type up a paper (kids, Whiteout is a thick, nasty, liquid for covering up typing errors and getting on your fingers and then on the keys of the typewriter. Oh, and a typewriter is, well, google it.) And so, I found this article very interesting as I pondered what skills are truly essential in the 21stCentury and which, like “shop” only for boys and “home economics” only for girls, should be left in the ditch along the information superhighway.

My second bias comes from where I come from, which is a family of teachers. Both my parents were teachers, and my older brother and sister each did over 30 years teaching in public schools. My daughter teaches 3rdgraders and I had the honor to teach at the Air Force Academy for a total of 17 years, the first 15 of which were on active duty, followed by two as a civilian professor. I value teaching and teachers. The late Lee Iacocca once said, “In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less, because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and the highest responsibility anyone could have.” I agree, and frankly, the recent war on teachers by some on the far right is both damaging and enraging, but, yes, future column.

And so, with those biases out there, what are the critical skills that should be passed on to Colorado kids this coming school year and beyond?

I remember visiting my sister’s 4rdgrade class years ago and was genuinely shocked to see a box of calculators available for math class. I expressed my disbelief, and my sister said that they did teach kids to add, subtract, multiply and divide the old-fashioned way, but once they had that skill, they let them use calculators to speed things up. She may have heard my eye roll when she asked me when the last time was that I had to do math by hand, rather than using an electronic aid? I confessed, likely back in the 4thgrade. So maybe how to divide and carry the one isn’t as vital today as, say, how to program a computer?

And so, when you take the survey mentioned above, you’ll see they ask you to rate the importance of a number of skills. They make it clear they are not talking about, say, biology or history – those still get taught – but rather what life skills are important enough to merit inclusion in the curriculum. For example, they ask about critical thinking skills, to which I offer a hearty YES! Far too many people still are taken in by silly nonsense like astrology and Alex Jones.

But perhaps most important of all is to teach intellectual curiosity. We want kids who have a thirst to learn, well, everything! And I support a Colorado curriculum that helps inspire that degree of inquisitiveness.  A state full of polymaths would be a very good thing indeed.

In my experience as a military officer, I often did not see a clear correlation between the smartest people and the best leaders. But often the most intellectually curious did. Famously, General George Patton was able to defeat German Field Marshall Rommel in part because he read Rommel’s own book on tactics. I believe schools should encourage and nurture that very curiosity. Schools may no longer need to teach how to operate a card-punch machine (which I learned in 1976), but they should strive to teach curiosity about all things. The more curious we raise our kids, the brighter our future.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.