Continuing the theme of education from my last post about design thinking and IDEO’s “Design Thinking Educator’s Toolkit,” I’m going to talk some more about education — but this time, about science education (or rather, the lack of it) and the problems with standardized testing.
Why are we not seeing any more scientific geniuses pop up? No more Einsteins, no more Curies, no more Edisons? It’s because creativity and imagination are being squashed out of us as students, and as learners (not everyone is a student, but everyone is a learner). Instead of instilling creativity and imagination in students, we’re preparing them for tests. It’s all memorization. I’ve experienced this myself as of late, with physics. I’ve had awful experiences with physics in the past, but it’s starting to turn around a little thanks to all the studying I have been doing. But I keep asking myself one question: Why am I taking physics? For the medical school admissions exam! That’s the only reason (not that I dislike physics, but it’s just not my cup of tea). Students are in school to take exams, rather than to learn. How can they learn if all they’re being told to do is learn x to take x exam? What if they face something new, that they didn’t learn in the classroom? How will they solve it? It makes no sense to make students memorize everything because they don’t get the opportunity to make connections for themselves or experience what they’re learning first-hand. Without these experiences, they won’t be interested in the subject at hand, and will become even more indifferent because the only end for that knowledge is a silly exam. There must be a way to evaluate how much students have learned, but surely there’s a way other than standard exams.
As Ainissa Ramirez argues in her book “Save Our Science: How to Inspire a New Generation of Scientists,” the entire education system must be changed from “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic” to “creativity, curiosity, critical-thinking, and problem-solving.” So what is it that we need in order to accomplish this transformation?
First, creativity and divergent thinking. We need to learn how to connections ourselves, rather than have textbooks make them for us. Sure, science has already established this information. But divergent thinking — as well as what Ramirez calls the “Janusian approach” — both involve making connections between things that are seemingly unrelated. For instance, how can you connect the realm of physics with the realm of biology?
Second, an appreciation of ignorance. Ramirez continues on to say that ignorance is frowned upon in today’s education system. Instead of being rewarded to say “I don’t know this, but I think…” we’re punished for our lack of knowledge. But here’s the rub: science is all about the unknown! Scientists are supposed to look at the unknown and say “I don’t know what’s going on, but I’m going to find out!” and engage themselves in figuring out what they don’t know. There’s no fear of failure, because in science, failure is what allows you to find new answers. Unfortunately, science education these days is all about memorizing facts and formulae — and if you don’t know what you’re supposed to know for an exam, you get a poor grade on said exam. As a result, students are afraid of failure, and afraid to make mistakes. Why is memorizing for an exam equated to learning? If you asked me what I learned in my first chemistry class, I couldn’t tell you because I had to memorize that material for exams. I have new exams to deal with now, so that knowledge is already gone. It’s ironic that as students, we’re expected to learn and remember all kinds of things, but after being evaluated on whether or not we learned, this knowledge is wiped clean so we can be evaluated on new knowledge… again, and again, and again. (Noam Chomsky contributes to this idea as well.)
And third, spirit and political will. From a historical standpoint, Ramirez makes an interesting point: science education thrived because of the Space Race and the American goal of getting to the moon. The spirit of science and learning as a whole was more alive than ever during that era. So what happened? Where did that spirit go, and how can we bring it back?
Although STEM education became a top priority during the Space Race, the U.S. still spends a ridiculously high amount of money on education for students, and yet, these students have shown the lowest performance.
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted an annual poll in 2006. The U.S. ranked #35 in math and #29 in science out of the 40 countries that were surveyed. (The most recent poll was done last year, but I could only find 2009 data. Also, here’s an interesting publication made by PISA as a recommendation for the U.S. education system.)
With all of these points made, how can we engage others to appreciate and invest in this? What can we do to not only make changes to promote better learning, but also to get people on board with these changes? As a first step, awareness about this issue should be spread to get more people to know what’s happening. But this awareness should be spread in such a way that promotes the new keys of learning. It should be creative, imaginative, and innovative. Even if adults say they can sit through a long and boring PowerPoint presentation on this subject, they’re secretly thinking “This is so boring! When’s lunch?” the whole time. Their attention isn’t being engaged! This problem is seen in lecture-based classrooms as well — students just want to get out. They have no interest in what’s going on in the classroom because they don’t see a point in it. So they get bored, indifferent, etc. and then get stressed out about assignments or exams related to the lecture that they didn’t care about. How can we make students care? By involving them directly in the learning process! The same can be said of a room full of adults waiting for a PowerPoint presentation. Don’t give them slides, get something hands-on. For example, give them puzzles to solve with their hands, in teams, to show them how education is failing and must be changed so that we aren’t just butts in seats.
A second step could be to implement changes in classrooms and conduct research studies to see how students have responded to these changes and how they have improved. This would require a much larger scale of involvement, but if people become aware and develop interest to see the education system truly improve, then it would have all the public support it needs. At this point, then, it becomes a matter of political will. But with public concern, surely the government will follow. But two important things here are time and money. The changes that are made need to be presented in a light that makes room for time efficiency and financial efficiency. The key again becomes getting people interested — for what is the government made out of? People! If the public can be interested, so can people in the government.
With that, I’ll leave one last bit of inspiration:
As E.O. Wilson says in his advice to young scientists, “What is crucial is not that technical ability, but it is imagination in all of its applications.”
Popova, M. “How to Save Science: Education, the Gender Gap, and the Next Generation of Creative Thinkers.” Brain Pickings. Web. 1 March 2013. http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/02/12/saving-our-science-anissa-ramirez/.
Popova, M. “Noam Chomsky on the Purpose of Education.” Brain Pickings. Web. 1 March 2013. http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/03/13/noam-chomsky-on-the-purpose-of-education/.