Teaching Life Skills

Posted: January 7, 2011 in Current Events, Pedagogy & Education, Philosophical Debris, Statistics and Lies

Having been an Intermediate teacher (Middle School) for 30 years, I have had many opportunities to teach life skills.  In Health classes we have often focused on smoking, drinking and drug use with little real impact.  While the stats show that teen smoking is currently only half of what it was 15 years ago, the actual incidence of smoking has stayed pretty flat for the past 8 years and actually has gone up since 2005.  Furthermore, they show that there is a 5% – 10% increase in smoking incidence between the ages of 20 – 30.

It seems like the anti-smoking campaign and the powerful information that is relentlessly thrown at youth and the public in general, had a profound effect on about 50% of smokers about a decade ago.  There is, however, another 50% that seem to be immune.  This immunity seems to get stronger with age, since there seems to be a sizable number who refrain during teen years and start in their early 20s.

The anti smoking campaigns and education are worthwhile because they have had this 50% impact on smokers.  But what about the other 50% (or, for the sake of statistical clarity, the 17% of teens who still smoke)?  How do we reach them?  It is doubtful that more education in schools or more graphic warning labels on cigarette packaging is going to do the trick.  This demographic seems to be resilient to this kind of persuasion.  As I said before, immune.

(There is a question of statistics here, though.  Who are these smokers?  How was the information collected?  If the stats include both regular an occasional smokers, is it the occasional ones who have responded to the education and have quit, leaving the hard core ones to continue?  These are important questions, which I’ve not found answers to in any of the published stats.)

These are the students who sit through the anti-smoking Health classes, absorb the information, usually agree with it (claiming that they’d never be smokers), and ace the tests showing that they do, in fact, understand the material.  And then four years later you see them smoking outside the High School.  They probably could still pass the test; information is not the issue.  The education was successful, as far as it  went.  It just wasn’t effective. For this resilient group (-and I don’t mean that in a good way-) traditional anti-smoking education just doesn’t work.  Information isn’t enough.  Whatever drives them to disregard what they’ve learned about the hazards of smoking is more powerful than their good judgment.

Interestingly, Japan does not have aggressive anti-smoking campaigns and the incidence of smoking among teens is only about 7%, while in California, which has all the campaigns and restrictions that we have here in Ontario, the incidence is 24%.

This is my primary example, but it is also true of other similar life lessons, such as sexual behavior, drinking and drug use.  We reach many who, in ignorance, may have otherwise made wrong choices, and that’s a good thing.  But there are those for whom common sense rolls off like water off a duck.  That shouldn’t be such a big surprise.  These kinds of life skills have to do with life, which can only be somewhat approximated in a classroom.  A more effective educational system would have to take that into consideration, focusing more on personal character development and positive resilience.

I bring this up now because of the news stories that have saturated the media in the last week about teaching proper financial skills in schools.  I think that this is a great idea, but would go roughly the same rout.  Those inclined to be financially responsible will be given tools to be better at it.  Those whose life views are incompatible with financial responsibility will absorb the information, seem to understand it, and then fail to put it into practice because there are other things in their lives more powerful than information and reason.  That doesn’t mean that we don’t do it but it does mean that we’ll likely only reach half the number we’d like to.  To reach the other half we’d need a radically different approach to pedagogy and education.


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