The Four Lessons You Must Learn In High School

Mr. Zohar


The worst half hour of my summer made me think of Joseph Yang. We were visiting
family and my father-in-law was watching Who’s Smarter than a Fifth Grader. It was painful. The show confuses intelligence and education with the memorization of facts. This reminded me of Joseph’s complaint, in these pages, about having to learn useless stuff, such as rhetorical devices. When Joseph returned to this topic in the most recent
issue, I was provoked to answer him. First of all, Joseph, your teachers don’t
care if you memorize the definitions, we just want you to write stylishly, and,
in fact, you do. Secondly, what’s Obama without rhetorical devices? A senator
from Illinois. There is obviously a huge and enthusiastic audience for powerful

More importantly, Joseph’s concerns made me think about what high school students
must learn in order to be successful at the next level. Since I remember being
a teenager and realize that to a teenager the only people dumber than their
parents are their teachers, I consulted four experts. I focused on career paths
that NT students generally associate with success and surveyed a Vice President
at the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, the director of the Centre for
Research in Healthcare Engineering at the U of T, a professor and founding
faculty at the Northern Ontario School of medicine, and a professor of
political science at Harvard. To avoid bias, I asked them each the same
open-ended question: what are the knowledge, skills, and values that students
must master at high school to be successful at university and in the

The Vice President at the CPP answered first. The first surprise was that he
discouraged students from taking business courses. His emphasis was on English
and Math, communications and calculations, and he emphasized presentation
skills as well as writing in a variety of formats. The second surprise was an
emphasis on teamwork; in fact, six of his 17 points had to do with working
with, listening to, and learning from others. The third surprise was an
emphasis on Global ed., history, and geography, that is, getting a sense of the
wider world around you. Not surprising was his emphasis on work habits, seven
of his points had to do with “setting goals”, focusing, and “juggling multiple
tasks and meeting deadlines.” He insisted that students must “not ask for
extensions.” And the final surprise: an emphasis on “a strong ethical/moral
compass.” It turns out that nobody wants to work with a person they can’t

Next came the engineer, his specialty being the use of computer engineering in
business and medicine. He had fewer points and was not especially concerned
about communications, but he certainly insisted on Math.  The rest was very much as above. A crucial emphasis on work-habits. He spoke of the dreaded first year engineering math and said that it’s actually not a difficult course. The problem comes in having to adjust to the workload expectations of university. He said that by 3rd
and 4rth year math, both much harder courses, students have improved their
habits and don’t experience any problems. He also surprised me with a
tremendous emphasis on group work and integrity. He emphasized that groups
should not be formed of friends, because “that’s not how it happens in the
workplace” and that “in engineering a lack of integrity can lead to tragedy.”

Next, the med school professor. Point 1, reading, point 2 writing, point 4 oral
communications; he did not mention math, but point 3 was research and
scientific inquiry. Once again there was an emphasis on work habits, especially
“completing assigned tasks on time,” and, by now this was not a surprise, an
emphasis on collaboration and integrity.

Finally, our man from the Ivey League. His answer was the shortest, and he asked for
three qualities. The “capacity to work hard,” a commitment to “social justice,”
(“Harvard sees itself as a character building institution”) and, most
importantly, an “openness to mentoring.” He spoke at length about this last
idea, saying that it “suggests humility, respect for others, and interpersonal
skill.” He speculated that one of the reasons girls outperform boys at
university is that boys too often feel that they already know everything,
whereas girls are more welcoming of other people’s ideas.

So what are the four lessons you must master in high school? You need to always
improve your work habits; as hard as you think you are working, you’ll have to
work harder at university. You need to improve your communication skills, both
writing and speaking, and your math. You need to embrace group work; when it
seems unproductive, figure out how to make it better. And you need to improve,
no, let’s say maintain, your integrity. All four experts had no interest in the
knowledge part of my question, there are few facts that have to be memorized,
but skills and values are key.

What does this mean for my classroom? I hope that I already teach communication
skills and demonstrate integrity, but there are three areas where I need to
improve. I’m far too flexible with due dates and need to push my students to
acquire the work habits that will help them later on. I hate group work as much
as anyone and need to figure out how to make it more meaningful. And, though I
already assign enough oral presentations, I need to come up with a way to make
students listen to and learn from each other more effectively.

Is Joseph ready for university? Absolutely. He works hard, has solid values, is
strong at math, and he writes like a dream. He just needs to stop whining and
accept instruction from those who wish him nothing but the best.