American Education 1/14/19

By Richard E. Bleil, Ph.D.

Once upon a time, when I was in graduate school, I watched a couples’ child in exchange for room and board. The father of this child was a well-renouned physicist, and the mother was a highly successful biologist both at very well-known higher education institutions. Their son was, at the time, in a prestigious private middle school.

One afternoon, he asked me if I could help him prepare for an upcoming quiz by quizzing him on meteorological terms. I asked him the definition of a cumulus cloud, and he gave back the answer, word for word, as written on the page. “Okay,” I asked, “what does that mean?” His answer was “I don’t know. We don’t have to know that.”

Of what value is memorizing a definition for a quiz if you don’t understand what it means? I know that, personally, I would do a “mind dump” of definitions as soon as the quiz is over, and I’m guessing that, if you asked him today, he would not be able to tell you that definition.

I was a rare chemistry professor because I never required memorization. Terminology is important in chemistry, but I would rather have students understand the concepts behind the terms, rather than memorize definitions. Why would one memorize the periodic chart, for example, if they would look up the information on it just to verify their recollection if the need ever arose? Instead, it was far more interesting to me to discuss how the periodic chart was arranged, and why it has the shape it has. Today, my students may not remember the details of quantum theory, but I can pretty much guarantee that they at least understand that the shape of the periodic chart is related to electron structure, and if they start to discuss that with their children, their children will be far more interested in the answer.

I believe that we have fallen into a trap in American education. It started many years ago when teachers began to be trained in educational theory at the expense of subject matter. I was having dinner with a friend and her sister who was a middle school science teacher. I knew she had her master’s degree, but was shocked to discover that neither her bachelor’s nor master’s degree was in science. When I asked when she learned science, she answered, “I don’t have to know science because I know how to teach.”

Seriously? So when and where does the passion for the subject come into play? If she did not enjoy the subject enough to learn about it, then I respectfully submit that the passion for that subject is likely to be absent, and the lack of passion will be passed along to the students. If a teacher does not like a subject, and spends minimal time on it (and likely, even if subconsciously, shows her dislike for the subject), then it is no surprise that the children are no longer passionate about the subject. Today, we have difficulty in finding college students interested in basic science and mathematics. Personally, I believe this begins in their primary and secondary education experiences.

Memorization seems to be a good cheat for teaching subjects in which the teachers are uneasy or unenthusiastic. It takes considerable time and effort for students to memorize something like the periodic chart, but has little true educational value. Unfortunately, the approach of memorization in classes is reinforced by educational requirements set forth in 2001 with the “No Child Left Behind” act, which relied on standardized testing of students for federal support of school systems. Memorization of facts is easy to put into automatically scored exams (true or false, or multiple choice questions), making it the easy choice for large numbers of students taking exams. Unfortunately, it is far more challenging to create questions that can be mass scored that requires actual synthesis of knowledge. By 2013, the victims of this educational approach (that is, those students who have been subjected to it from grade 1) been pumped into institutions of higher education and society in general as adults. The result are people who believe looking something up on a search engine is the same thing as understanding.

One of the most challenging parts of my exams for students was when I would pose something from culture and ask my students to write a paragraph on it. They were questions such as “crystals release energy that can heal the body.” I was not concerned about if the student agreed with me or not, but insisted (and this was made clear) that the students use principles from class to justify their position. I would like to respectfully submit that, as a society, we start training teachers to be enthusiastic about the subjects in which they teach, and move away from memorization of facts. After all, it is synthesis of knowledge that leads to new advances. For science, I believe that in elementary school, science should be like a magic show. “Look what we can do!” Maybe start introducing some simple concepts, but forget the terminology. In middle and high school, start teaching the laws and concepts, but again, forget memorization of definitions. Students should learn terminology based on the discussion and principles. If we can get students interested in math and science, they can learn the terminology and details in college.

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