Thursday, September 20, 2012

Is Everything We’re Teaching Garbage?

Artificial intelligence theorist and education reformer Roger Schank has argued that virtually everything we currently teach to kids is a waste of time, according to Good Education.

This provocative statement should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. For one, Good is calling him a “reformer” which, to many teachers, is an epithet most commonly applied to people with little or no training in education who have an ulterior motive (often profit-driven). Second, being an artificial intelligence theorist makes him no better qualified to critique education than any other non-educator.

Nevertheless, he brings up several salient points. For example, he argues that much of what we teach kids (or how we teach it) seems irrelevant to their everyday life. This is often the case, and it has only gotten worse with the mania for accountability and standardized exams, which has led to increasing use of teacher centered lessons and test preparation at the expense of engaging, inquiry-based lessons. Many districts have even gotten rid of science, arts and music to make room for even more test preparation.

However, Schank is not simply criticizing teaching to the test. Even traditional subjects that have held a sacrosanct position in schools’ course offerings are a load of malarkey in his mind. For example, he has called chemistry "a complete waste of time," arguing that no one really needs "to know the elements of the periodic table" or the "formula for salt," including doctors, who he incorrectly says do not use the chemistry they learned in college.

This is a ridiculous assertion. Doctors use their chemistry daily when considering which drugs to prescribe and how they might interact with other drugs the patient might be taking. Understanding how Prilosec helps alleviate digestive problems, for example, requires an understanding of acid/base chemistry as well as the biochemistry of protein channels and enzymes.

A basic understanding of chemistry has important day to day applications, even for people who never take another science course in their lives. It is applicable to cooking, maintenance of common equipment (e.g., cars), health and safety. For example, an understanding acid/base chemistry can prevent serious accidents at home or work when working with common cleaning materials, while a little biochemistry can go a long way toward understanding nutrition and diet, or the safety and proper usage of prescription and over the counter medicines.

One of the most important arguments in favor of chemistry is that it provides important prerequisite knowledge necessary for understanding much of the life sciences content standards, which have become very heavily weighted toward molecular biology and biochemistry over the past decade. Thus, if we are going to teach high school chemistry, it should come before biology. Unfortunately, few schools teach science in this sequence. Schank, by the way, supports the continuation of biology as a high school course, as long as we change how it is taught, which I favor, too.

On the other hand, the California content standards for chemistry require that students learn far more detail than most people will ever need. Unless continuing on to study higher level sciences, for example, no one really needs to know electron orbital configurations or Le Chatelier’s principle. By removing some of these more detailed concepts from the standards, teachers could have more time and freedom to implement curriculum that covers standards that are more relevant to everyday life and in a way that directly ties the content to real world problems.

Another problem is that science is often taught as a serious of facts, rather than a process of inquiry. While many of the facts are indeed important, what really makes science useful (and fun) is its ability to answer questions and make accurate predictions about natural phenomena, something than can and should be taught at school. Sadly, this is rarely the case in K-12 science education. Most science teachers, when they assign lab activities at all, rely heavily on “cookbook” or proof-of-concept activities and demonstrations in which the results are known beforehand. Students are rarely allowed to generate original data, develop their own testable research questions or design their own experiments. It is likewise rare that science teachers have students peer review each other’s lab reports or read and critique articles from scientific journals and popular science magazines, something that can hone both their literacy and critical thinking skills.

One important reason for continuing to teach science is that scientific thinking and analysis can effectively be applied to many nonscientific situations. However, this is only true when science teachers spend time teaching the scientific process, how to analyze data and create graphs, control variables and design good experiments. For example, the news media often publish sloppy graphs and data that poorly formatted, missing pertinent information or lacking a thorough description of the method of data acquisition. Someone who has had a good science education ought to be able to catch these problems and recognize that the conclusions drawn from such data might be inaccurate or exaggerated. In contrast, those lacking such training may buy all sorts of social snake oil, like the notions that poverty doesn’t affect student academic outcomes or that student standardized test scores are an effective and accurate way to evaluate teachers.

Schank correctly points out that the history textbooks are full of untruths. In reality, though, all subjects taught in school are subject to the biases of the ruling elite to some extent. However, this is most apparent in history and social studies courses. That does not mean that history should not be taught. Teachers do not have to use the textbooks at all or they can use the texts and add their own commentary. They can use the portions they find accurate and useful. They can even use the inaccurate parts to teach their students about bias.

One of Schank’s beefs with history is that U.S. presidents keep repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War. By this we can presume he is talking about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, this criticism belies his own misunderstanding of both history and politics. Politicians did indeed learn from the mistakes of Vietnam: Don’t have a draft; Do most of the killing from the air to minimize troop casualties; Subcontract most of the work out to private contractors;  Keep independent journalists away; and Do as much of the dirty work as possible in secret. On the other hand, why should politicians give a damned about history? Even if they can’t “win” outright, wars are still profitable and they still help maintain our geopolitical dominance. But this interpretation of history will never make it into the history books as it conflicts with the myth that America is the world’s greatest proponent of democracy and freedom.

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