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16 Things Your Kids Will Learn In School That You Didn’t

Some subjects—like geometry and biology—will always make it onto a school's curriculum in almost the exact same way. But others—like history and social studies—are constantly evolving to take into account recent history and social changes. Here are the things that kids will learn in school that we didn't.

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Though there have been relatively recent outbreaks of viruses like the H1N1 swine flu, along with SARS and MERS, fortunately, none reached pandemic level. So when a novel coronavirus started making people in China sick in the final days of 2019, many people assumed it would be a similar situation. Within a few months, COVID-19 (the disease caused by this novel strain of the coronavirus) was a global pandemic. Not only will students likely learn about the COVID-19 outbreak starting this fall, but it could also mean more inclusion of public health in the curricula. Lessons could include everything from basic hygienic practices, to how viruses spread, to the history of large-scale infectious disease outbreaks, including the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Ideally, these lessons will also include background on how COVID-19 disproportionately impacted communities of color in the United States, along with why it’s so important to address racial health disparities immediately.

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September 11 and the War on Terror

Most people alive on September 11, 2001, know exactly where they were when they first learned that a hijacked plane crashed into the Twin Towers in New York City—but at this point, even high school seniors were born after the event. Given how much changed after 9/11 in the United State, it is often taught as a defining moment in modern history. “This lesson has a wide range of components to it including border security, immigration, foreign policy, military and even the debates on religion and foreign dependence on oil,” Michael Hart, a historian and author of Unknown America, tells Reader’s Digest.

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LGBTQ+ history

Four states—California, Colorado, New Jersey, and Illinois—currently have laws in place mandating that LGBTQ+ history is incorporated into their curriculum. Joy Koratzanis, a teacher in Barnegat, New Jersey who has also worked on developing curricula, says her school has fully embraced this addition, featuring figures like Harvey Milk and Sally Ride in classroom lessons, as well as having an LGBTQ+ club with an advisor. Though only four states currently require that LGBTQ+ history be included in the curriculum, that is likely to increase. Lessons may also include topics like how the rainbow became associated with gay rights.

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Mass shootings

Though mass shootings are unfortunately not a new American phenomenon, they are becoming increasingly common, perhaps most visibly in schools like Parkland and Sandy Hook. Koratzanis, who has taught in both Florida and New Jersey, says that school shootings are “a genuine concern for students and teachers.” After 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, her school district had both the students and faculty take ALICE training, where they were taught to respond to an active shooter and defend themselves. At this point, Koratzanis says that the topic of mass shootings isn’t relegated to a single classroom lesson, but rather is “a constant conversation” that occurs throughout the year. Here are more things that people are doing to prevent school shootings.

Boy using tablet indoors to learn.
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Character education

As social media becomes more entrenched in children’s lives, genuine human interactions, and processing emotions have become a challenge. “For our students today, social media is their number-one concern,” Koratzanis explains.

Not surprisingly, cyberbullying has become a major problem. “It used to be that if someone makes fun of you, you then get to go home and wouldn’t have to deal with it. But it’s not like that anymore,” she says. Now, thanks to technology like Snapchat and texting, kids are able to bully each other all day, every day, which has been linked to more issues with mental health and suicide. In fact, a 2018 study found that people under the age of 25 are more than twice as likely to self-harm and enact suicidal behavior if they have been cyberbullied.

As a response, schools like the one where Koratzanis teaches have implemented “character education” classes, where they learn everything from how to problem solve, create goals, manage time, and process emotions offline. “My job is to help kids look at things from a better point of view and tools to deal with the hard stuff,” she explains. “Because they’re so focused on what’s online, face-to-face conversations are difficult for them.” Classes like these will likely become a more common part of schools’ curricula moving forward.

Teacher among school kids using computers in class
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Social media and podcasts

But as problematic as certain aspects of social media have become, it is also an important teaching tool and subject of classroom lessons. According to Koratzanis, teachers at her school are encouraged to infuse social media into their lessons as a way of bringing them to life, whether it’s having students weigh in on a weekly discussion question or a teacher posting photos of a visit to a historical site that the student may not have otherwise had a chance to visit. In addition, an English teacher at her school has also started having students create their own podcasts, in order to get a better understanding of this increasingly important medium. And if you’re looking for recommendations, here are 12 podcasts you’re not listening to, but should.

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The Great Recession

Just as we learned about the Great Depression of the 1930s, students will learn about the Great Recession of 2008, Robert Kane, PhD, professor of history at Niagara University tells Reader’s Digest. “It simultaneously showed the strength of U.S. economic institutions in that tools were available to the federal government to keep the crisis from worsening, and also the wages of wealth inequality among Americans,” he explains.

launch of the first iphone
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Introduction of the iPhone

In addition to learning about how technology impacts our lives, kids will also likely be taught about how groundbreaking the iPhone was when it was first introduced.  “The device fundamentally changed the way people communicate, interact with one another, perceive time, and remember and imagine events, which helped create a culture of immediacy and impersonality,” Kane explains.

protect the future
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Environmental responsibility

Although we learned about topics like the greenhouse effect and acid rain in school, students today are going much deeper, looking at the myriad ways the environment impacts society. And according to Shel Horowitz, an educator who previously taught at the University of Massachusetts and author of Guerrilla Marketing to Heal the World, this will include the shift of both developed and developing countries to more environmental responsibility.

“While this often started through citizen action and spread into government, a big difference in the past 15 years or so is its emergence in the business sector, where, perhaps surprisingly, it’s been strongly welcomed,” he tells Reader’s Digest. “Now, most major corporations have a sustainability coordinator if not an entire department. We’ve seen environmental pioneers such as Ben & Jerry’s, Interface, Patagonia, and even Walmart imitated throughout the corporate world. Even Exxon-Mobil pushed back when the Trump administration recently said it was going to lift some environmental limits. For millennials/Gen Z, this is the issue of their time.”

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Protests and civic engagement

Another facet of the proliferation of social media that will be included in curricula is its impact on civic engagement, specifically, pushing back against governments, regimes, and policies that are seen as harmful. “While many countries have shed pro-democratic, pro-environment, inclusionary governments in favor of repressive, anti-environment, and openly racist leaders, this has not gone unchallenged,” Horowitz explains. “Not since the 1960s has organized social protest been so much a part of daily life, in the United States, Europe, Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere. From street demonstrations to lobbying meetings to running progressive candidates in local and state elections, the resistance has, at its most successful, even toppled national governments, such as in the case of the Arab Spring.” Most recently, there have been demonstrations against racial injustice across all 50 states following the police killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Though there have been countless incidents of anti-Black police violence throughout American history, Floyd’s death was captured on video, prompting tens of thousands of people to take to the streets and demand action. Protests have also helped the labor movement, here are 12 that changed the world for workers everywhere.

flags of America, China and Turkey on the background of the business building
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A shift in U.S. Foreign Policy

From the Marshall Plan to Détente to the War on Terror, U.S. foreign policy is constantly evolving, and according to John McNay, a professor of history at the University of Cincinnati – Blue Ash College, the most recent shift will be included in history lessons.

“In a minor way, it is possible to see it in the Iraq War where our allies (NATO) supported the invasion of Afghanistan but were generally opposed to attacking Iraq and we did it anyway,” he tells Reader’s Digest. “It began to raise questions in their minds as to whether we were a reliable partner and whether we lacked judgment.” He says that this has become glaringly obvious in the Trump administration’s dismissive attitude toward post-World War II institutions, including NATO and the United Nations, while embracing our more traditional and non-democratic foes, North Korea and Russia.

Education School Teacher Student Digital Tablet Technology Concept

Digital citizenship and Internet hygiene

In addition to learning about how social media and the Internet has impacted society, it is becoming increasingly common for lessons in digital citizenship, or Internet hygiene, to be included in curricula. This will include topics like ethical and unethical hacking, phishing, data protection, data mining, and safe Internet usage. And this form of education should begin early. “When I walk into a kindergarten class, and they have a set of iPads that they’re utilizing, we need to begin having a conversation about security,” Kevin Nolten, the director of academic outreach for the National Integrated Cyber Education Research Center told Education Week. Here are some apps to help keep kids safe online.

Washington DC, USA steps stairs of Supreme Court marble building entrance architecture on Capital capitol hill with columns pillars
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The Supreme Court gets political

Given the nature of Supreme Court appointments, it’s not surprising that politics can leak into the highest court in the land. But since 2000, the Supreme Court has become more political than ever. McNay argues that it has shifted to the right, starting with their intervention in the 2000 election, essentially putting George W. Bush in office. He says that it was also seen in the Citizens United and Janus decisions. “In both cases, they have transformed the First Amendment from a restraint on government to a tool for conservative causes,” he argues.

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Extreme storms

Between storms like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy in the United States, and multiple extremely destructive typhoons in Asia over the past 20 years, school curricula are expanding to include lessons about the impact of this extreme weather. Touching on science, the environment, politics and history, these lessons—like Hurricane Katrina: The Storm that Drowned a City—will become more common in the classroom. They may also include topics like where hurricane names come from.

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Black Lives Matter/Racism

Part of the recent increase in civic activism includes the Black Lives Matter movement. Founded in 2013 by three women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, the movement was created in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen. The movement gained momentum in May and June 2020, following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. These worldwide protests—taking place during the global COVID-19 pandemic, no less—will likely be taught in schools alongside civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s. Given the importance of Black Lives Matter and the conversations it has started surrounding racism, there are teaching guides and classroom lessons available from the National Education AssociationCompiled from school districts around the country, these resources are publicly available to teachers and will likely continue to be added to curricula.

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Consent and respecting physical boundaries

In 2019, it’s no longer enough to teach sex ed—students also need to learn about consent and respecting physical boundaries. Given how deeply misunderstood the concept of consent has been—most recently illustrated through the #MeToo movement— this is something that is being addressed in schools with increasing frequency. The Harvard Graduate School of Education provides strategies for educators on how to talk to students about respecting each other’s boundaries, broken down by tips for those working in early education, elementary school, middle school, and high school. There is also an organization called Teach Consent which offers resources for parents and educators. Moving forward, consent is likely to be integrated into classrooms at all levels of education. Now, check out these school subjects that you learned in school that your kids probably won’t.

Elizabeth Yuko
Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and journalist covering politics, public health, pop culture, travel and the lesser-known histories of holidays and traditions for Reader's Digest. She's always mentally planning her next trip, which she'll base around visits to medical museums or former hospitals, flea markets, local cuisine and stays in unusual Airbnbs or historic hotels.