If you’ve seen this meme, you might’ve agreed with it: learning how to file taxes is important (and carries penalties for doing it wrong) whereas most adults don’t use parallelograms.

But let’s dig deeper… “how to do taxes” could mean two things:

  1. How to file taxes correctly — i.e. without making mistakes
  2. How to file taxes expediently — i.e. pay less tax without getting caught

Let’s take the first one — schools could (and some do) give exercises on filing taxes and cover the typical mistakes people make. But taxes (even if it’s just personal income tax) change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and from time to time. What do students need to learn to be able to handle those permutations?

  1. General Literacy (need to read and understand instructions on the forms and news on changes/exceptions)
  2. Arithmetic (addition, subtraction, percentages)
  3. Logic (simple things like if-this-then-that, or perhaps a bit more convoluted things like if((this1 and this2) or (this3 and this4)) then that)
  4. Optional — Financial Literacy to understand the terms (but even without it, you should be able to read and understand it using General Literacy)

Are there schools that don’t teach these? It’s hard to imagine getting to parallelograms before these!

So is it that schools didn’t teach how to fudge taxes? Of course we can’t expect schools (especially when most of them are tax-payer funded) to explicitly teach tax-avoidance, but even assuming they did, the tricks and loopholes wouldn’t be static, so it would require the same skill-set as filing taxes honestly (albeit with a different value-set).

So where is the problem? We have a clue with the expectation of “learning how to do taxes” while in school. They could learn about it, but they can’t actually learn it because school students don’t file taxes. That learning experience has to come later. What is needed of schools is to provide them with the grounding (literacy, numeracy, logic) so that they can figure it out when they need to — and schools already do that…or do they?

Conventional education, with its emphasis of standardisation, can’t really accommodate real-world application (i.e. application to solve questions that each child encounters in their own environment, and increasing understanding until the question is adequately solved), so for most of the syllabus, it’s not really learning that takes place, only “learning about”. This wouldn’t be a problem if students actually wanted to learn about them, but that’s now how conventional education works: “You have to learn this because it’s in the syllabus, and if you don’t learn it you’ll flunk the exam!” — so the result is that many students (except the ones who have a knack for it) just “learn” (actually, “cram”) it sufficiently to pass the exam and then promptly forget about it (so that they have room to cram for the next test).

And when the learning is (neat, easy to assess) paint-by-numbers rather than (messy, hard to assess) real-world application, students don’t get a chance to learn that vital skill of “figuring how to solve this problem using the fundamentals that I know”, and will therefore have cause to complain that “school didn’t teach me to do taxes.”

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