This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Canada, which closed in 2021.

What We Wish We'd Learned In School (And How To Learn It Now)

There are so many adults running around without basic life skills, us very much included.
If only high school had taught us everything we needed for adult life.
If only high school had taught us everything we needed for adult life.

With more people talking about homeschooling and alternative education systems right now, it feels natural to consider what education should really be about.

As adults, many of us come to realize we’re lacking basic life skills or a clear-eyed understanding of the real world. That could mean we’re fed up with staring hopelessly at our fridge, wondering how to make a meal out of dry pasta and expired condiments. Or maybe we’re wishing we’d figured out how to budget before we went into a global pandemic. Or maybe you wish you knew the accurate pronunciation of a Quebec landmark.

Here’s a not-at-all-exhaustive list of some of the things we wish we’d learned in school ― and how to make up for lost time.

Indigenous history

When I was in high school in Quebec 15 years ago, I never learned about residential schools and had no idea about the intergenerational trauma they caused.

The way North American schools whitewash their colonial history is shameful and cowardly, and, worst of all, it perpetuates bias. By downplaying our government’s historical complicity, lots of non-Indigenous kids reach the conclusion that colonialism wasn’t that bad, which enables ongoing acts of anti-Indigenous racism.

In Canada, Indigenous women go missing or get murdered at rates experts call genocidal. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Indigenous youth, some of whom die at rates 11 times the national average. Pipelines are built through Indigenous land, and many reserves still don’t have clean drinking water.

Indigenous children at a Canadian residential school in 1950.
Indigenous children at a Canadian residential school in 1950.

The history of residential schools is now on the curriculum in all provinces and territories, although the substance of what’s being taught varies quite a bit. But there are still so many people, including kids who were in school two or three years ago, who never got that education.

If you’re an adult looking to learn more, there’s a lot of great work by Indigenous writers that can help you, including work as varied as 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph; The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King; A Mind Spread Out On The Ground by Alicia Elliott; Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga; and Whose Land Is It Anyway? A Manual For Decolonization by Peter McFarlane and Nicole Schabus.

You can also take a free online course at the University of Alberta, just like “Schitt’s Creek” star Dan Levy.

How to do your taxes

If your experience of tax season involves staring at all those numbers and blank spaces with absolute terror, you’re not alone. Less than a quarter of Canadians could provide the correct answers to questions about their tax returns, according to an H&R Block survey from earlier this year. It’s an important life skill, but for some reason we’re expected to just know how to do it, without ever having been taught.

How to learn it now: The federal government offers a free online course on basic tax that’s as helpful to adults as it is to teens learning this stuff for the first time. Wealthsimple also offers some basic information in language easy enough for those of us who don’t particularly understand this stuff.

The dynamics of race, privilege and oppression

Kids of colour, and particularly Black and Indigenous kids, grow up in a world that treats them with deep injustice. It’s really important for everyone to understand how race functions and what privilege means. If we all learned more about unconscious bias and racism as kids, maybe there would be fewer acts of racist violence.

Protesters in Toronto march during a rally to protest racism and police brutality on May 30, 2020.
Protesters in Toronto march during a rally to protest racism and police brutality on May 30, 2020.

How to learn it now: There are a ton of anti-racist reading lists that came out this summer, following the death of George Floyd. Here’s one by How to Be an Antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi. Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility are both good starting points from this list.

This comprehensive and accessible list includes articles, podcasts, movies and videos as well as books. The list was compiled by white allies “to deepen our anti-racism work” and has been shared widely since this spring.

Here’s a primer on what “white privilege” means, by Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. It’s written in a way that doesn’t condescend to the reader, but instead invites white people to start re-thinking unconscious biases.

And here’s a list of Black organizations that you can support in Canada.

Media literacy

Judging by my Facebook feed, many of our schools didn’t do a great job at explaining the difference between a reputable news organization and an angry blog that’s purely made up. The ability to critically assess information and determine what news is actually fake is one not enough of us have, and is generally considered one of the contributing factors to Trump’s 2016 victory.

How to learn it now:

Former Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, who now works for CNN, is a one-man master class in fact-checking. Watch him to see just how many mistruths politicians spread.

Jane Lytvynenko of Buzzfeed News is another great Canadian journalist who focuses on misinformation. Her Twitter feed is a good one to follow that identifies internet hoaxes and commonly-spread lies.

There are also a ton of valuable resources that can teach you to distinguish reliable news sources from false stories. Here’s one such list from NPR, one from the Toronto Public Library, and another from TED.

If you’re inspired by Dale’s work and feel motivated to fact-check viral social media posts yourself, look at resources like Snopes and Fact Check.

Conflict resolution

You know what I’ve learned about in school that I’ve never used once in the real world? Integers, sine, cosine and the fur trade! You know what I could really have used? Strategies for managing conflicts with my family, roommates, and other people I’ve been forced into close contact with.

These kids could definitely use some tips.
These kids could definitely use some tips.

There are skills I’m only now learning in therapy at age 30. Why isn’t it a priority to teach this to teens, whose bodies and minds are changing quickly, and who could use some help with impulse control and diplomacy?

How to learn it now: There’s a Toronto-based course on negotiation and communication that’s now available online to anyone during the pandemic. The course material for Misha Glouberman’s “How to Talk to People about Things” is based on a negotiation class at Harvard Law School.

Looking up books for your specific situation can also be really helpful. Here’s a list of books for dealing with a narcissist, for instance, or one about having hard but necessary conversations. If you don’t know where to start, here are some suggestions.

French

Canada is a bilingual country, but outside of Quebec, most schools don’t actually produce bilingual students. Being able to carry on a conversation in French has endless benefits to anglophones, at work, on vacation or just in life as a means to enjoying some of the great cultural offerings of francophone Canadians.

How to learn it now: Once we get older, it can be tough to really learn a language without taking an in-depth, in-person class, which is usually expensive. But there are many free tutorials online, and there’s always DuoLingo, if you can handle that owl’s relentless guilt trips.

Watching TV or listening to music in French can help a lot, too. Try songs by Coeur de pirate, Malajube, Les soeurs Boulay, or Les cowboys fringants. And here’s a list compiled by the Montreal Gazette of French-language TV shows from Quebec that anglophones should consider watching, and a list of French-language shows on Netflix. And here’s a list of popular Canadian podcasts in French.

You can also search for French discussion groups in your area, which are often provided by libraries.

Actual sex ed

Whether we’re dating as adults or teaching our kids about sex and dating, there are things we all need to wrap our heads around, from consent to sexting to respect to what constitutes sexual assault. Because so many of us didn’t receive adequate sex education in school, it can be hard for many parents to know how to clearly explain some of these concepts to kids.

A young child holds a sign during the annual LA Pride Parade in West Hollywood on June 9, 2019.
A young child holds a sign during the annual LA Pride Parade in West Hollywood on June 9, 2019.

Some of the other concepts that seem absent from many sex-ed curriculums: the meaning of consent that’s absent of coercion; what might feel pleasurable to different kinds of bodies; affirmation of different orientations and identities.

How to learn it now: Here’s a great list of sex ed resources that are LGBTQ-inclusive, put together at the height of the Ontario Sex Education curriculum reform controversy. And here are some tips on how to lead potentially awkward conversations with your kids about sex, masturbation, and porn.

The Vagina Bible by Jen Gunter contains information everyone with a vagina should know, while Aaron Spitz’s The Penis Book is also pretty self-explanatory. Can I Kiss You? is a good nonfiction primer on consent and intimacy. (For more books about consent, go here or here.) Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness and Amanda Jette Knox’s Love Lives Here are great memoirs about growing up trans and having trans family members, respectively.

For parents looking for information about how to help their LGBTQ+ kids feel supported and affirmed, check out HuffPost Canada’s series with sex educator Nadine Thornhill.

If you’re an adult who wished you had learned more in school, check out The Walrus’s 2018 sex ed project. For more, um, hands-on info, check out O School, Bellesa, or Hanx.

How to sew

In the olden days, girls would take home economics classes while boys would take shop. It’s obviously sexist and stupid to teach kids that their assigned gender should dictate what their priorities are, but it’s also silly because sewing is a basic skill everyone should have. Knowing how to reinforce a button or sew up a small tear simply makes your life easier.

How to learn it now: Luckily, this one is pretty easy to pick up online. The internet is full of sewing tutorials for all different ages, purposes and skill levels, with or without a sewing machine.

Children learning to sew at Millfields Community School in London, U.K.
Children learning to sew at Millfields Community School in London, U.K.

Personal finance

For many of us (cough cough, me), this was an area of knowledge that was already lacking before March. Now that we’re in a global pandemic and so many Canadians are reckoning with job losses and economic uncertainty, it’s become apparent just how crucial money management is.

Knowing how to make a budget, invest for retirement or save for a vacation, these are the kinds of skills adults are expected to have but are never really taught, unless they happen to have financially savvy-parents.

How to learn it now: McGill University offers a free online class on personal finance. There are also some helpful basics on saving, investing, and planning on Wealthsimple’s website.

Money Sense has a great series called “What the Finance?” that explains terms (TFSA, RRSP, employee stock plans) and offers some basics on saving.

If you’re willing to pay for course, check out Dave Ramsey’s “Never Worry About Money Again.” It’s a personalized, interactive class that offers you a customized financial plan along with tools and resources. He also has a podcast and budgeting app available for free.

And although she doesn’t focus on personal finance anymore, Canadian writer Gail Vaz-Oxlade has a massive archive of past financial advice, including books like Debt-Free Forever: Take Control of Your Money and Your Life, Money Rules: Rule Your Money, Or Your Money Will Rule You and It’s Your Money: Becoming a Woman of Independent Means. You can also check out her Twitter feed, where she has pinned tweets with bite-sized pieces of financial wisdom.

Gardening

This is another skills that some people (like my roommate) just seem to know how to do, and other people (like me) are totally stumped by. It would be great to know how to plant and maintain a garden, how to recognize root rot, how to cultivate and care for something. It can be therapeutic to beautify your space and see the work you did pay off in a tangible way.

How to start teaching or learning it now: Here are some helpful gardening basics. There are also a ton of Instagram accounts that can provide you with inspiration. Don’t be afraid to fail and try again — your tomato plant or daisies or ferns will get there eventually.

As a billion motivational posters will tell you, life is a journey. We’re not likely to ever feel like we’ve learned everything we need to know. But we can all pick up more skills — it’s never too late to start working on something new.

Suggest a correction
This article exists as part of the online archive for HuffPost Canada. Certain site features have been disabled. If you have questions or concerns, please check our FAQ or contact support@huffpost.com.