4. Life Skills First

A Complete Core Curriculum that teaches you how to live your life and navigate the world
When considering the idea of a core curriculum based around soft skills, something kept bothering me. Soft skills encompassed the first two Connections of the central philosophy, but what about the 3rd Connection, which is equally equivalent in importance for the success of an individual?

Core Curriculum

A core curriculum is a set of common courses that all students need to take. The courses in the core curriculum include the skills and knowledge we want every single student to develop. This is the key for the core curriculum. These are courses that teach skills relevant to every single student and the future that awaits them. And most importantly, these are the courses that will define a common vocabulary for all the students at the school.
The Core Curriculum builds off of the Core Philosophy and in this chapter, we will explore how the core curriculum classes can be designed. It is important that we keep the core curriculum as streamlined as possible. All other courses should be included into a Secondary Curriculum that includes optional courses and skills that can be learned. The Secondary Curriculum will be expanded more in the next chapter.
These are the skills that should be systematically taught to every student because it is useful no matter where you are in life. Whether it be in a place of work, daily interactions with your family or significant other, instant messaging friends, or negotiating for a deal or opportunity, soft skills are absolutely critical to the success of these interactions.
My K-12 alma mater, the International School of Beijing, embody the following values: • Global-Mindedness fosters diversity of thought among students who consider their role in an increasingly connected world. • Integrity is as highly valued as results, laying the platform by which we function. • Respect among our community is a fundamental attribute for learning together. • Balance in the lives of all our community members is promoted and supported. • Service prepares engaged global citizens committed to contributing to the world around them. • Creativity is a critical quality for future success, which along with innovation is valued and promoted.
A Core Curriculum should prioritize the learning of these ideas rather than making them supplementary and as an after thought to the traditional curriculum.
That’s why the true core curriculum is not actually soft skills first. Rather, it is life skills first.

Life Skills First

A Complete Core Curriculum

Life skills encompass all of the soft skills, but it adds a few more skills that are not included in soft skills. Namely, skills involved with how the society and the environment around us works. This allows us to integrate the third connection in the 3 Connections into the Core Curriculum.
The 3rd Connection is all about connecting with the community, society, and the environment. This means learning about news, politics, government systems, economics, trade, banking, climate change, ecological cycles, etc. This knowledge is highly relevant in today’s world where everything is integrated and interconnected. Not only is being part of a community integral to most of the population, it is very hard to in general to completely disconnect from the rest of society.
One thing I really want to emphasize is the importance of understanding how the larger picture works, and in this case, I’m speaking about the environment. Spending time and effort to understand longer term repercussions in larger systems that are yet to be fully understood allows that generation of students to have a stronger moral compass for what needs to be prioritized, creating more potential for solutions to problems that will crop up in the following decades.

Traditional vs. Life Skills First

I want to quickly explore what a Life Skills First Curriculum would look like compared to a traditional curriculum.
A Traditional Curriculum looks something like this:
  • Math
    (includes arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus)
  • Sciences
    Includes hard sciences such as biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, astronomy, etc. and soft sciences such as psychology, sociology, economics, etc.
  • Physical Education
    Includes general exercise and physical activity.
  • Language (Native Language)
    Includes reading, writing, and speaking.
  • Foreign/second language
    An opportunity to explore reading, writing, and speaking in another language.
  • History
    Can include local, national, and international history
  • Computer Classes
    This includes the learning of how to use computers including typing and commonly used software as well as computer science programming.
  • Arts & Music
    includes drawing, painting, theater, musical instruments, singing, etc.
The above should be relatively familiar to most people. These are the classes that we took from elementary through to high school. All of these classes have a focus on knowledge accumulation with the goal of having a better understanding of the world around us.
If we were to choose the most essential skill in the above list in today’s world, Language would be it because it is absolutely the most critical skill and it is necessary to facilitate general learning and it is the most basic skill needed to be able to communicate with others. This is the type of skill that should be in the core curriculum. Others including Math, Science, and History, should be moved towards a Secondary and Optional Curriculum because these subjects can be very broad and the proficiency of each of these subjects should vary depending on the student.
Now, let’s look at an example of a Life Skills First curriculum, broken down into the 3 Connections Core Philosophy it would be based off of:

Connection 1: Self

The Self Curriculum can be broken down into 2 distinct parts: Learning about Yourself and Developing Fundamental Skills.
The first one, Learning about Yourself, dive into basic questions related to the self that are explored systematically for each student. This includes doing research on each individual’s strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, wants and desires, needs, feelings, and fears. In traditional curriculums, we never explicitly explore this, thus, students are never able to explicitly share their thoughts. Spending time to explore these questions will provide a significant amount of insight into the student for themselves and for others, allowing for a better understanding of what paths the student can take when they decide on the developmental path they want to take in their education. And Learning about Yourself should be done multiple times throughout the year. As students learn and grow, their thoughts and feelings will quickly develop and change, making the entire process highly iterative.
The second one, Developing Fundamental Skills, focuses on self development and is broken down into 4 parts: mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual.

Mental Development

Mental development is what we usually attribute to schools. Aspects of mental development would include leadership, creativity, logic and problem solving. Although traditional curriculums do tackle these, the difference would be on the approach. Traditional curriculums tend to integrate these into the classroom as secondary, where the goal of a specific project is to research and complete the project and if it so happens that the project requires some leadership or problem solving, all the better. With a Life Skills first curriculum, the initial goal that is being set is the skill that needs to be developed. If the skill being developed is creativity, then the prompt for the project becomes: “Design and develop a project that requires creativity”. Students will define the project based on this requirement, whereby it is guaranteed the project will demonstrate creative thinking if the project is approved.
This also puts students in the driver’s seat. Instead of being assigned the same project that is done by everyone, students now create their own project which allows for more options and out of the box thinking.

Physical Development

With Physical Development, we are looking at basic physical education in addition to better understanding of the human body and all aspects that relate to the human body, including how to take care of it.
In physical education, there needs to be a focus on understanding the human body and the basics of movement. Traditional physical education programs have been about getting students moving and active, but it was never taught to us how we should move. For example, how many people run with heel strike first motions? That’s because we were never taught how to run. How many people have posture issues? That’s because we were never taught how to properly use our core. How many people actually know how to do a push up or plank properly? Surprisingly, we are not taught how to actually do these simple moves properly, even though they are commonly done in physical education programs. Heck, how many people walking properly? On top of that, basic balance and spatial awareness should be developed to help students better understand how to use their body.
With the goal of better understanding the human body, that obviously includes looking at the human anatomy, human biology (explored in a way that can be directly related to what students can touch and feel instead of memorizing that mitochondria is the work horse of the cell), health, and medicine. Upon mentioning health, a very important aspect of health is food. A strong understanding of food and nutrients will also be an important aspect of physical education.
Lastly, physical education should include learning about how to take care of yourself. This can be simplified down to the term, self maintenance, and should include knowledge development in basics such as cooking, how to clean yourself, laundry, and maybe even how to create shelter.

Emotional Development

The third piece of Developing Fundamental Skills is Emotional Development. These are the skills that build a strong foundation that will empower your well-being and control over your emotions. This includes developing self-control, self-respect, resilience, grit, discipline, toughness, and open mindedness.
The goal of developing emotional strength is to help students be able to manage themselves and build the strongest version of themselves so they are able to handle anything that can be thrown at them. With emotional strength, they can maintain calm in more scenarios and it will help students fight off anxiety and also build a school environment that will have fewer conflicts. Much of the conflicts that we see in school, especially bullying, is derived from a lack of emotional balance, causing students to need to appease their emotional instability by putting down others to build up a sense of superiority to combat the emotional trauma in other parts of their life. Developing the emotional fundamental skills will give students the soft skills that that will allow them to succeed by being much more comfortable with who they are.

Spiritual Development

The fourth fundamental skill is Spiritual Development. The term spiritual, is used in many ways, but the focus here will be slightly more concrete and will not include religious definitions. Spiritual, in many ways, is an extension of emotional. Emotional is about your relationship with yourself, while spiritual is about your relationship with your surroundings.
The spiritual skills involve developing an appreciation for the world around us, giving thanks and providing forgiveness. Spiritual development is how we help students find their inner calmness to the world around them. Much of this stems around understanding how the world works, specifically what can and cannot be controlled. In addition, it’s important to understand how to control your reactions to your surroundings, which leads to exercises like meditation and maybe even yoga where the goal is to slow down and parse through the large amounts of information without new distractions.
In today’s world where there is so much distraction and outside stimuli, developing a strong spirit and spiritual well-being will be very important for finding a sense of happiness and fulfillment.

Connection 2: Others

The second part of the core curriculum centers around skills that are necessary for communication and empathy.
With communication, at the very basic level, we have language. Reading and writing are a must and becoming multi-lingual is important as well as it will allow for students to become more capable in communication. An additional benefit of multilingualism is each language tend to generate different biases in the language’s ways of thinking, which can help individuals think outside the box more often. For example, the English language has a tendency to mentally box time into past, present, and future thanks to it’s relatively distinct future and past tense vocabulary, allowing for easier acceptance and abuse of the concepts of loans, mortgages, and credit, while the Chinese language would tend to create more conservative individuals in regards to the same topic due to there being less separation between the present self and the future self.
Additional learnings for language can target penmanship and typing, where they are not absolutely critical to the language itself, but are very important for utilizing the language efficiently.
Language then extends into the different mediums for how one can share their ideas. Essays, white papers, blog posts, reports, are all different ways to organize and express an idea. In addition to text based content, communication will encompass other mediums such as audio, video, and other art forms such as paintings, music, and theater, all forms of expression and communication.
Once we get into these different mediums, we begin to encounter communication with empathy. The reason why alternative mediums of communication are so powerful is because they can elicit emotions within others and this is done through empathy. Whether it be non-fiction or fiction, science fiction or fantasy, the communication of ideas where the content is trying to empathetically reach the audience is the most powerful type of communication because it can be relatable. When something is relatable, that’s when others can begin to accept it.
Therefore, the study of empathy breaks down into a series of psychology and sociology concepts. Understanding the idea of respect, inter-human relationships, right vs. wrong, selfishness, attraction, agreeableness, and consent are all part of topics that would be studied to increase empathy.
A specific type of communication focused around empathy has already been developed by the late Marshall Rosenberg called “Non-violent Communication” and it focuses on understanding each other’s needs and fears through communication to better negotiate and determine a solution that can make everyone happy. This is the final goal of communication and our role is to increase the chances of success by giving everyone the knowledge and practice that will increase these chances.

Connection 3: Community, Society, and Environment

Connection 3 is the outlier for why the core curriculum should be about Life Skills rather than Soft Skills. It’s because the material in Connection 3 aren’t traditionally labeled as soft skills. They are more based around knowledge. But the knowledge in Connection 3 is an absolute requirement for anybody who expects to live within the confines of society, which is almost everybody.
Connection 3’s curriculum can be broken down into 3 parts: Community, Society, and Environment. Community focuses around understanding and experiencing how a community works. The knowledge aspect involves understanding the importance of local businesses and local services such as schools, hospitals, municipal systems, etc. The experience part will involve different types of community service, including volunteering with the police department, fire fighting department, the local town hall, waste management, etc. with the goal of allowing students to see all the different aspects of making a local municipality run correctly.
Of course, that’s not all there is to community. There will also need to be a more theoretical approach where the content focuses on defining what a community is and why it is important to the well-being of the people in the area. This would include ideas around the benefits of a community, how to build a community, and how to maintain a community.
The second part is Society. Society focuses on studying how we interact with it and also how the system works. Basic understanding of money, economics, politics, and law are important in the everyday interactions with have with society, especially money. Banking, credit and debit, investing, and financial independence are all part of everybody’s life, and thus should be a core part of our general education.
The system part includes understanding macro economics, especially behavioral economics, where the learning touches on how humans behave in larger numbers. This is to help more people understand concepts like “tragedy of the commons” and “prisoner’s dilemmas” so as a society, better decisions can be made for the greater good. Additional understanding of sociology and history will greatly benefit the understanding of how society became what it is today.
The last part is the environment. The environment is important because it is the space we live in. For the time being, this world is still the only home we have, so we should develop a strong understanding of it so we can protect and hopefully, someday, be able to control it. The environment includes basic sciences such as earth science and geology, but traditional sciences such as chemistry, physics, and biology will all be fundamental part of learning about our Earth and our environment.
The goal is understand that all parts of the ecology is interconnected and humans already have the ability to heavily impact the environment and the world. The greater understanding that our young ones have of how the environment works, the more likely that they will care and want to protect it.

Conclusion

The Core Curriculum in Blankslate Education actually overlaps a lot with the traditional curriculum. The difference is that the focus is on achieving the goals listed in the 3 Connections rather than just acquiring the knowledge for each subject.
The Core Curriculum is not a grade based curriculum. It’s about exposure and repetition of the content as the student grows to get an understanding of each student’s growth and development. Exposure is based around how these soft skills apply in different situations and repetition involves constantly reminding students about it so that it gets ingrained in the students. It would make sense to include different aptitude tests as well to better understand each student as they develop.
The goal of the Core Curriculum is to create a program that actually encompasses all the most important knowledge that every single person should know when entering society. Preparation for the real world is what core curriculums should be trying to achieve.