Today’s Times Magazine (9.19.10) is devoted to technology in education, and I am happy that the general tenor is very positive.     Secretary of Education Arne Duncan comes awfully close to saying that every student should have a computer, despite his interviewer’s skepticism, and this blogger is delighted to read him say “often, as you know, the kids are way ahead of the adults.”

The opening piece is titled, wonderfully, Achieving Techno-Literacy: Computers are a Tool, not a Solution; I think it aligns nicely with my piece, In Schools of the Future, Students Learn by Doing, Digitally.  The author says of his son, after a year of home-schooling using on-line learning tools: “He had learned the most critical thing: how to keep learning.   A month ago he entered high school eager to be taught– not facts, or even skills, but a lifelong process that would keep pace with technology’s rapid, ceaseless teaching.”

Right now, though, I want to appreciate a much lower-visibility piece in the Times two weeks ago, by Gregory Mankiw, entitled A Course Load for the Game of Life.   Mankiw was President Bush’s Chair of the CEA and is the author of a standard Econ textbook; he was also, as I recall, my section teacher for Ec 10 (not lecturer, but small group section teacher); I spent many a morning in a classroom with him and 20 others learning Econ.

This piece is short but important: what do students need to learn for the modern economy and the fast changing world?  Well, Economics for one:

economics [is] “the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life.” Introductory economics helps students understand the whirlwind of forces swirling around them. It develops rigorous analytic skills that are useful in a wide range of jobs. And it makes students better citizens, ready to evaluate the claims of competing politicians.

Statistics. How I wish I had spent more time learning stats!

High school mathematics curriculums spend too much time on traditional topics like Euclidean geometry and trigonometry. For a typical person, these are useful intellectual exercises but have little applicability to daily life. Students would be better served by learning more about probability and statistics.

One thing the modern computer age has given everyone is data.  There is a large leap, however, between having data and learning from it. Students need to know the potential of number-crunching, as well as its limitations.

Psychology.  Like Mankiw, I have found recent publishing in psychology to be incredibly important to thinking about the world and ourselves: books like Nudge, Predictably Irrational, and many others really help us to see how blinding our biases can be, and how humble our judgment should be.  Again, from Mankiw:

A bit of psychology is a useful antidote to an excess of classical economics. It reveals flaws in human rationality, including your own.  But after the birth of behavioral economics, which infuses psychology into economics, I remedied that mistake.  I don’t know if it made me a better economist. But it has surely made me a more humble one, and, I suspect, a better human being as well.

Professor Mankiw ends his piece with a lovely advocacy of skepticism and critical thinking; to paraphrase, there is no single right answer about what must be learned or what path to take, and be wary of relying too much on conventional wisdom.

IGNORE ADVICE AS YOU SEE FIT Adults of all stripes have advice for the college-bound. Listen to it, consider it, reflect on it but ultimately follow [your] own instincts and passions.

The one certain thing about the future is that it is far from certain. I don’t know what emerging industries will be attracting college graduates four years from now, and neither does anyone else. The next generation will shape its own economy, as the young Bill Gatesand Mark Zuckerberg shaped ours.

As we in K-12 education carry forward the conversation about what our students need to learn, Mankiw’s piece offers good wisdom from a useful perspective.  Our students will most benefit when we teach them the knowledge and skills which our world require for understanding its complexity and addressing it challenges; economics, statistics, and psychology can and should be a critical part of a secondary education in the coming year.