I’ve been in technical communication – user guides, standards, online help, job aids, and just about anything else you can throw into that bin – for more than 20 years.  I was an English teacher before that.  So I found this story via a Drudge Report tweet and greeted it with a groan.  The lede:

American literature classics are to be replaced by insulation manuals and plant inventories in US classrooms by 2014.

A new school curriculum which will affect 46 out of 50 states will make it compulsory for at least 70 per cent of books studied to be non-fiction, in an effort to ready pupils for the workplace.

Suggested titles to replace The Catcher in the Rye?  Recommended Levels of Insulation, a gripping yarn as told through the eyes of a team of bureaucrats at the US Environmental Protection Agency, and that stalwart ribald classic Invasive Plant Inventory, from those wacky folks at California’s Invasive Plant Council.

To be sure, I’m all for teaching business communication and technical writing at the secondary level.  It’s a valuable skill to cultivate, even if you’re not going to make a career out of it.  But how much of the recommended texts represents what is actually used in, and reflective of, the workplace?  What will Recommended Levels of Insulation teach high schoolers about business communication?  Maybe how not to do it?

In one of my education classes, a professor told me that rarely, if ever, do school systems, whether they’re local or statewide, think much about curricula they implement wholesale.  It’s never a gradual integration of new ideas to replace older ones.  Well-thumbed teacher copies of The Catcher in the Rye are one day replaced with a two-inch thick manual about insulation.  And it’s years before someone gets a clue that the students aren’t responding well to the change.

Do school systems want to prepare students for the world of work?  Fine.  Teach them how to write a resume, interview for a job, conduct themselves professionally, how to run a meeting or a group discussion, how to write various types of e-mails – asking for information or clarification, defending a decision – using a professional tone.

In short:  if you want to ready students for the world of work, they won’t learn about it by reading an EPA guide on insulation.

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