Education — do we measure by volume or weight?

Ever notice that when you get a bag of potato chips, it’s mostly empty space? You get a huge bag with a few grams of salted fat-chips.

I sometimes wonder if many American schools aren’t similar. We send our kids to school from early morning to mid-afternoon, and then make them do homework for one to five hours more (the optimum homework load, by the way, seems to be 1-2 hours, based on rather scanty and mildly dubious research).

school (homework)

In the end, we have notoriously ignorant citizens who get basic facts of our own history wrong, speak a single language, don’t understand the basics of politics or economics, have no clue how scientists work, can’t read or perform original research, and, generally, live up to the worst fears of Jefferson, Hamilton, Franklin while confirming the dire predictions of monarchist onlookers (like, well, Hamilton).

What’s wrong with this picture?

There are some factors which I think aren’t talked about much, first being that American education tends to be more influenced by fads than by actual research. Since many boards of education and principals don’t know any better, it’s hard to counter arguments that more and tougher is better.

In addition, many Americans want their own ignorance to continue into future generations, which affects teaching about things like climate change, human reproduction, and history; suggesting that maybe the South started the Civil War (it did fire the first shots, after all) or that it was about slavery (as they wrote in their constitution), for example, is almost as “politically correct” and loathed as teaching about the influence of women and union leaders.

I do have a partial solution for this issue—which is not teaching about climate change or evolution. Instead, we can teach how science works; how to do, read, and critique research; and how to use logic and reason to persuade yourself of reality. I think kids who are armed with the weapons of reason will reach their own conclusions, even when deluged with fake news. It’s not hard to find dialogues and debates over climate change and evolution.

(There has to be some way to make science more interesting than rappers and sports for more kids. Do you have any ideas? Use the comment box.)

We tend to avoid teaching actual science. Our hard-working teachers do some demonstrations, which are good but often clearly scripted with the meaning not quite understood by the class. I’d even like to see class experiments fail just so the teacher can expose the reality of science, which is that sometimes we screw up and don’t get the results we expect. Scripted errors are another thought — the class does an experiment to show something, but something else happens, and we learn from that. We all know the story of penicillin, but you don’t really “get it” until it happens to you!

Finally, too much of what we teach is there because it’s there. At some point in the past, before research was applied to education, armchair theorists sat in judgement and decided that we needed to fill children with science trivia, calculus, and pointless, incorrect historical facts. We have the “seven colors” of the spectrum, which Isaac Newton made up because he liked the analogy with musical notes, as one example; or most of the Columbus/1492 story as another.

courses / homework

A recent story in the Macalaster alumni magazine (I’m not from Macalester myself) asked why we teach calculus, and that’s a prime example. We teach nearly every college-bound high school kid a type of math which is very difficult but only used by a small fraction of graduates. When I learned it, there was no mention of what it was actually used for, either; I learned that later, largely from Douglas Adams’ writings. I learned what trigonometry was for, long after taking the tests, when reading the Master and Commander series (though apparently it’s used for things besides rigging and navigating sailing ships).

If you ask me what types of math I actually have used in real life, it’s small amounts of relatively simple algebra and lots and lots of statistics. Now, statistics is being taught in some schools, but I wonder which type they’re doing—stats for stats majors, the most useless classes I had in grad school, or statistics for research, the most useful classes I had. Again, research methods, with statistics as tools, are powerful and easily abused, and one of the most important things we can teach. Yet, because they don’t fit into Georgian or Victorian educational models, they tend to be taught rarely and poorly. We are so focused on what the planets weigh that we ignore how they’re weighed; we are so focused on Newton’s theory of colors that we ignore how such theories can be tested and disproven.

We have a long ways to go in improving education. I’m not the first to say this, but I think we look too closely at how well students remember what they’re taught, and not closely enough at why we teach those facts and methods. If every American knew calculus and trigonometry as perfectly as the most skilled mathematician, it would have only a minor impact on our nation’s success. If every American fully understood research and development, including how we prove or disprove theories, we could make a great deal of progress indeed, in both business and government.

Who’s first to step up to the plate and do something about it?


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